The Deep Singers (often just Singers) are a self-modifying race of biomancers who originated in underground caves and burrows beneath Shirerithian Brookshire and went on to migrate across southern Benacia.
How the Deep Singers came into being, or whence they obtained their noted proficiency in splicing genes, is a mystery - consensus holds that their ascent was initiated by the energetic surge of a huge chthonic field residing in the mycelial stratum of southern Benacia, whose collective domain was lovingly referred to by the Deep Singers (and remains identified by their modern descendants) as the Garden. The wisdom imparted by this field-entity to those in its proximity through countless quantum-neural interactions, and the practice of the biomantic skills thereby obtained, resulted in the gradual divergence of the Deep Singers from human genetic norms which became more substantial and visible with each successive generation (or iteration, in the vernacular of the Singers themselves). Ultimately whole sections of genome from marine and insect life were incorporated into the Singers' guided evolution without regard to their effect on the amygdalae of unmodified humans with whom they came into contact, which were still optimised for visceral alarm at the sight of venomous or verminous species by their evolution from jungle-dwelling primates. The resulting instinctual horror at the sight of chitinous exoskeletons, extra limbs and tentacles scaled up to human size (and often beyond) presented frequent difficulties in social relations between Deep Singers and unmodified humans, escalating in certain cases to massacre and genocide.
These difficulties in time led to the emergence of a faction of Deep Singers which held that allowances must be made for symbiotic interaction with unmodified races in the Singers' own iterational development. This clashed with the more conservative faction which essentially espoused a form of biomantic imperialism, viewing all unmodified humanity as a blemish on the Garden to be forcibly modified or else eradicated. Relations between the two factions ultimately degenerated into a bloody and acrimonious civil war in their Shirerithian home, the Garden of Shimmerspring - largely unseen as it occurred almost entirely underground. The ultimate result of this conflict was the mutually agreed exile of the reformist faction - led by one Fleurette de Taniere Gaudin, known within the Garden as the Thoughtseeker - to central Benacia, where they joined forces with a similarly-disfavoured faction of Shireroth's undead - led by Queen Lyssansa Rossheim - to establish the Kingdom (later Empire) of Minarboria.
The Deep Singers of Minarboria found immediate resonance with their undead companions as transhuman entities liberated from the normal constraints of the human lifespan, which were seen as artificial impositions by a self-interested archonic host masquerading as a pantheon of gods under the auspices of Shireroth's Cedrist religion. This compelled a schism from the Cedrist Temple (which at any rate was in a state of terminal decline within Shireroth) and the cultivation of a new theology, derived from the Deep Singers' Garden model and figureheaded by the leafy personage of Minarbor, a sentient shrub which had sprouted during one of Shirekeep's periodic descents into plague-ridden anarchy and had been worshipped as a deity by the Deep Singers' undead comrades ever since. The cultivation of the new religion, known as Minarborealism, was entrusted exclusively to Minarboria's Deep Singers and imparted all of their kind, whether active in the Minarborian church or not, with an inherent holiness and social authority.
Back in Shireroth, the remaining Deep Singer regime in Shimmerspring had fallen into a state of inward-looking stagnation and was thus tragically myopic to the ascent of the Nationalist & Humanist Tendency in Shireroth, which held all non-human or quasi-human forms of sentient life to be abominable desecrations of its arbitrary vision of natural order and called for their systematic extermination. It was an alliance of these elements with hardliners in the collapsing Cedrist Temple which had latterly become fixated upon the worship of Mors, their god of death, combined with the brief but actively sympathetic rule of one Tokaray al-Osman (aka Kaiser Aurangzeb II) who had usurped the Shirerithian throne, which set the stage for the blackest episode in Deep Singer history. The event concerned - known as the Underkeep Massacre - saw the pursuit, capture and ritual slaughter of Deep Singers in the Shirerithian capital by an immense lynch mob, which then proceeded to invade the city's underground quarters where most of its Deep Singer population resided and inflict untold casualties there; all with the silent assent or active collusion of local authorities.
The event horrified the remaining Deep Singers of Shimmerspring, whose faith in both the Shimmerspring regime and Shireroth's Imperial government to protect them as a social class was instantly and utterly destroyed. This population then hastily undertook a second mass migration to Minarboria - this time led by one Celestine de Taniere Gaudin, an ancient insectoid creature known within the Garden as the Broodmother who was the nominal progenitor of the entire Deep Singer race. This migration, likened to the exodus of hive-dwelling insects around its migrating queen and indeed functioning as such on a pheremonal level, denuded Shireroth of its remaining Deep Singers and planted them beside their Minarborian cousins. This in itself caused great social upheaval in Minarboria - during their seperation the iterational paths of the two Deep Singer races had diverged, each possessing modifications viewed by the other as peculiar at best or heretical at worst, with the second migration retaining the old derision of the first migration's cavalier approach to the biomatic arts (the latter exemplified by the creation of the notorious Tee-al). Added to this was the erosion of the authority of Fleurette the Thoughtseeker, who held the nominal leadership of the Minarborian church, by the arrival of her biological parent Celestine the Broodmother. Greatly stressed by the division of her loyalties between the Old Garden and the New, Fleurette began to spend increasing amounts of time in Sansabury's Ouroboros Club where an innocent comment about her glitterball-like halo (a bioluminescent modification) caused her to seek indulgent solace through the medium of Disco and become progressively more oblivious to events outside the club. Meanwhile the Empire of Minarboria, by this time afflicted by the failure of its necromatic field and the collapse of its undead ruling class, slowly began to unravel.
A consequence of this decoherence among the Deep Singers was that the release of invasive engineered lifeforms by incompetent or malevolent elements, between the ever-widening cracks of state and societal oversight, became possible once again. The inevitable result took the form of the Crystal Death - a matrix of sentient mineral alleged to be the creation of the Deep Singers' renegade principal biomancer, the Geneshaper - which began to permeate the geology of central Benacia. Alongside its tendency to race unregulated through seams of rock, the Crystal Death induced a resonance in Deep Singer brains known as the Crystal Song which compelled them to burrow into the ground en masse, in a desperate compulsion to unite with the source and do its bidding. While their lich counterparts began to crumble into dust the Deep Singers similarly disappeared beneath the soil, the more susceptible individuals clawing at the ground with their bare hands or other bodily appendages in the absence of tools.
The Geneshaper had, however, underestimated the immune capabilities of his kin and a small portion of their number were unaffected by the Crystal Death. Over time these would be absorbed into the heaving masses of Minarborian citizenry who sought shelter in the Octavian mountains and would eventually establish Kalgachia. Robbed of spiritual guidance by the old church and the social mores implanted by their elders, the younger Singers capable of unassisted reproduction inevitably interbred with their unmodified peers and gave rise to a distinct race of halfbreeds known as the Nezeni - a term originally used for the Deep Singers' ancient and lizardlike language but now shorthand for those descended from its speakers.
Of those Deep Singers who had been seized by the Crystal Song and migrated ever deeper into the Micran crust, many acquired a resistance to its effects before they fully succumbed - these eventually rallied against the Crystal Death and its agents in a bitter and protracted war, mostly conducted in the complete darkness of excavated caverns in Micras' lower crust and sustained by the cultivation of sub-surface lichen therein. This arduous battle for survival largely mirrored the struggle of the Deep Singers' Kalgachi counterparts to defend their way of life on the surface but except for the occasional seismic anomaly detected by Project Newrad, each remained unaware of the other. The war against the Crystal Death was eventually pursued to a costly victory - Celestine the Broodmother, who had survived the long tumult and served as something of a rallying point, elected to lead the battered survivors back to the surface at the city of Lepidopterum whence she had begun her journey underground in Minarboria's dying days. Expecting to give up the leadership of her kin and assume a quiet retirement upon her emergence, Celestine was instead confronted by twenty million ecstatic followers of the Ketherist church which had seen fit to sanctify her in her absence.
On Several Aspects of Singer Sociobiology
On Several Aspects of Singer Sociobiology was published by the University of &zeter in the middle Minarborian era, and remains the most authoritative summary of the Deep Singers. The full text can be read below.
Although great strides have been made in integrating the society of the Deep Singers with the undead, the conventional breathers, and other groups within the framework of Minarboria, it is evident that many aspects of Singer life remain poorly understood at large, largely because of the effects upon it of their tendency to biomodification.
With the encouragement of the Second State Arborist, who himself has in the past had contacts with Singer culture, we hereby present this brief treatise on several of the most important, but less understood, aspects of Singer biology and the resultant effects in Singer society and culture.
The Deep Singers began as an offshoot of the subterranean culture of Citadel, in Caverden in Lichbrook. Generations of divergence had already produced a population that noticeably differed from mainstream humanity; some of these turned to genetic engineering, first as a form of economic relevance in the face of plentiful zombot workers, then as an aesthetic ideal of mutability and adaptability. Nonetheless, even after the move of the Singers to Shimmerspring in the early 4700s ASC, the techniques available meant that the ability of the Singers to change themselves was often limited in scope and required the passing of generations to develop fully.
The situation changed in the latter half of the century with the accidental discovery of the techniques required to manipulate what is now referred to more technically as carnosa, aka the vital force. The advent of biomancy not only made the imposition of genomic changes far quicker and easier than it had previously been, but also allowed for far more drastic alterations. This is due in part to the nature of biomantic action: in short, whereas genetic manipulation via technological means requires knowing what to change in order to achieve a desired effect, a biomantic ritual can allow one to begin by specifying an effect and causing the necessary changes. While it would be extremely incautious to take this to mean that knowing what happens on a biochemical level is unnecessary, it does reduce the burden on the biomancer in that such knowledge is no longer quite as central as it otherwise might have been.
In any event, over centuries of development and refinement, the practical basis for morphological freedom has been well and truly laid; that is, there is no barrier of knowledge or technique that prevents a Singer from being modified in nearly any direction he or she chooses, subject only to the feasibility of one's chosen form. This is why, despite popular depictions of the Deep Singers, it is very hard to arrive at a physical description of adults that would encompass more than half of them without being so vague as to be nearly useless. From adolescence onward, they can be found in a bewildering variety: they adopt modifications out of utility, popularity, personal aesthetics, or even out of ideology (some particularly devoted Minarborealists have been known to take plant-like qualities in the image of their God). It is even known, if uncommon, for some to have abandoned their humanoid origins entirely; even among the majority who have not, one could be forgiven for not being certain whether a given pair of Singers belonged to the same species, much less the same ethnicity.
Given that Singers, aside from any visual oddities they might have at any one time, may change their appearances drastically throughout their lives, some other means of identification is needed. As a result, all Singers are assigned from birth their own smell, a unique olfactory "signature" produced by the body, which it is legally forbidden to change via bodily modification. Although conscious perception of the smell may be (and often is) reduced by application of perfumes or other scents, due to the specialized olfactory senses of Singers this does not often translate to a loss of reliable identification (see Sensory Capabilities, below).
Although some modifications are proven to be performed safely on children, it is otherwise generally considered that unless a given mod is strictly necessary, it should not be done until the child reaches adolescence; the number of mods that are considered appropriate increases throughout until full adulthood is reached. This is due to the difficulties involved in ensuring the appropriate effects of many mods through an individual's early development, and the high risk of adverse consequences; as a result, most allowable mods are more or less cosmetic until mid-to-late teens.
Iterations and Heritability
Despite the wide variability in adult forms, Singer children look relatively similar to one another - and, indeed, not all that different from unaugmented human children (aside from paler skin and hair, and a smaller, slighter build). That this remains true, even if one parent is composed mostly of tentacles and the other resembles a sapient mushroom, remains a common source of bewilderment to the uninitiated. Although this is possible partly due to the usual method of Singer reproduction (see Reproduction, Parenthood, and Family Life below) much of it can be explained by a simple fact of biology and the Singer approach to it: the difference between somatic cells and germ-line cells.
Briefly, germ-line cells are those which give rise to the gametes, sperm and ova - the cells that unite to transmit genetic information to the next generation. Somatic cells, in contrast, are all the others, which make up the bulk of the body but provide no direct input into one's offspring. This is an important distinction even in nature; a mutation to a germ-line cell will affect one's potential offspring, but a mutation to a somatic cell, however much it might affect the organism in question, will generally not be passed on.
It is this difference which allows the Singers to achieve individual flexibility without sacrificing group stability. The vast majority of modifications to a Singer's body are to the somatic cells only; indeed, germ-line mods are undertaken only with immense care and forethought and in relatively small steps, and as a general rule they are not granted to any given individual by request. This is due to the Singer belief in self-directed evolution: achieving predictable results depends on knowing exactly what is being passed on to the next generation, knowing that it will work, and being sure that it serves a particular purpose.
Although there are other manifestations, this is embodied in the concept that Singers call the 'iteration': effectively, a set of standards of biological design. Iterations can be considered the biological analogue of operating system updates in the computing world; as new features and traits are developed, as flaws are discovered and means of counteracting them developed, they are integrated into a unified genetic and phenotypical plan - an iteration - which, when finalized, must be adhered to by all future Singer offspring. This makes the declaration of an iteration something of a major event, as it requires every Singer who recognizes the authority of the Warden of Whisperwood to have the necessary changes made to their germ-line cells. (Very few Singers do not fall into this category; Singers who fail to submit to the rules and restrictions are not considered viable members of the gene pool and will not be permitted offspring.)
By their very nature, however, the iterations are often general in their scope; they must be able to accommodate the natural range of variation among Singers. Although carefully watched and controlled, there is a place for both genetic diversity and natural mutation among germ-lines, which provides a source of generated traits that artificial experimentation cannot match.
The ability and determination to control evolution has demanded another change of the Singers, one of which concerns reproduction.
It goes without saying that being capable of screening, modifying, and choosing sperm and ova for the production of offspring does not count for much if people are permitted to, as it were, sow their seed however they pleased. However much genetic diversity might be generated by the random matching of gametes, in terms of genetic planning it is a thoroughly disruptive process, and, given the Singers' abilities, also a thoroughly unnecessary one.
The techniques required to implant fetuses in amniotic tanks - essentially, artificial wombs - were already well known to the first Singers, as they had already been developed for the creation of lich-offspring. This allowed for controlled breeding, but it did not eliminate the risks and vagaries of natural breeding. Put bluntly, people were still having sex, and, despite precautions, producing children from it. Aside from genetic uncertainty, this had other disadvantages - the inconvenience and health risks to the mother, the possibility of biochemical and physiological abnormalities in the womb with consequences to the fetus, and above all, the risk of uncontrolled population growth, an unacceptable danger for beings who often lived greatly extended lives.
The Incarnates of the early Singers, reasoning that sex had outlived its biological usefulness, first attempted to deal with the problem by removing the libido. This eventually proved to be spectacularly unsuccessful; although there were some individual cases that went without incident, in most cases the hormonal changes resulted in unwanted, and occasionally severe, behavioral side effects. The reproductive urge, it seemed, had too fundamental a basis to be so easily abolished; although improved biomantic techniques have led to isolated calls for the attempt to be made once again, so far this has not been acted upon.
Having failed to discourage sex, the Incarnates' second (and far more successful) approach involved the physical separation of sex from reproduction in a process called 'sequestration'. At a time determined by a group of developmental factors for each individual, but which usually falls in the mid-teens, a particular mixture and quantity of hormones is introduced into the bloodstream of each Singer. This triggers an internal metamorphosis, particularly the closing of the vas deferens (in males) or the Fallopian tubes (in females), such that the gonads, while still producing sperm and ova, are effectively prevented from releasing them into the reproductive tract. For all intents and purposes, therefore, an adult Singer is unable to breed naturally.
Reproduction, therefore, is mediated via the government of Whisperwood, which has several ministries devoted to this effort. Gametes are periodically harvested from individuals throughout their lives; each is screened for advantageous or disadvantageous traits, and sorted based on how well the good is considered to outweigh the bad, with the former more likely to be used freely and the latter used only if a particular trait is strongly desired. When a child is scheduled to be produced, yet another screening is done, this time to estimate whether a particular combination of sperm and ovum would have an undesirable result not readily apparent in each by itself. Only once this process has been complete are the gametes permitted to unite and be implanted in an amniotic tank for development.
Parenthood and Family Life
This method not only divorces sex and reproduction, but also the both of them from parenthood; there is no guarantee that the people raising a child will be its genetic parents. Individual Singers, when applying for a child (provided it is their first application), are held to have what is known as 'Privilege of First Consideration', in which the child will carry their genetic material rather than someone else's, provided there are no specific reasons for denying it. While very often no such reasons present themselves, it is also not uncommon that they do: for example, a couple desiring a child may prove to have an unacceptably high risk of some undesirable trait should both their germlines be used, or perhaps an individual may even be barred from genetic contribution entirely (though this is rare). In such cases, even though an individual may be fit to raise children, it may be required that they accept the genetic contribution of another in place of their own.
(From this one can deduce that, other than the Privilege, individuals have no particular rights to their own gametes once extracted; they are, essentially, the property of the state, to be stored, modified, used, and distributed as needed. It should also be borne in mind that the Privilege is only applied to individuals, rather than couples or groups: if one partner of a couple has not applied for a child before, while the other has, then only the first partner has the Privilege, even if these particular partners have never jointly applied for a child.)
Applications for children are not unlike applications for adoption in other societies, and indeed more or less take their place; as children are effectively made when ordered, children without parents represent an extremely small proportion of the population. In determining whether to grant an application, a number of factors are considered: on the prospective parents' side, their physical health and psychological make-up, their lifestyles, their living situations, their resources, how many children they have already had. On the side of societal needs: what level of population growth is desirable, how many children are needed (and when) to maintain that growth. On the genetic level, the decision of whose gametes shall be used to produce the child must also be considered: does each parent still have the Privilege, are theirs desirable traits, are there traits of some other germ-line that need substantial increase in the gene pool, and so on.
The long life of most Singers - and the fact that, because of how reproduction occurs, each individual may be "fertile" for their entire existence, and possibly beyond - means that the population can be maintained with only one child per individual, if not less. Therefore, an individual who is considered unobjectionable as a parent will generally have an application for their first child approved, even if the child is genetically unrelated; further applications beyond receive somewhat more scrutiny.
In practice, however, there is room for considerable flexibility, partly because many Singers who would be eligible for a child choose not to apply for any. Some do not wish to be distracted from their pursuits by the need to care for a child; some do not like children at all; others are fulfilled enough by the occasional chance to care for their younger relatives. Even in cases where someone applies for a child jointly with a partner, any given pair that is content with one child between them will be reproducing below replacement rate. And, in all cases, most Singers have in the back of their mind the knowledge that, after all, their genetic legacy may yet be passed on through a child raised by someone else.
As a result, there are frequently "spare" allowances of children to be assigned, so that families judged to be good and loving caregivers may be assigned more than usual. Indeed, in some (relatively rare) cases, where individuals have both a talent for and strong enjoyment of parenting, they are essentially "employed" by the state as full-time parents, with large families.
As a final note on this section, the subject of non-traditional relationships should be mentioned. Although by far the most common arrangement for both sexual and parental relationships is a male-female pair (reflected in the wording of these articles), other arrangements are by no means unknown and for the most part present no objection. Sexual behavior, provided all individuals involved have undergone sequestration and are involved consensually, is generally the concern neither of the authorities nor of society unless it proves actually disruptive in some fashion.
Although the likelihood to be approved as a parent is linked to certain requirements (age is not strictly a factor, but various signs of maturity are), it is similarly unaffected by the configuration of the relationship provided that those requirements are met. Same-sex parenting couples are known, and indeed the present state of reproductive techniques allow them to have biological offspring together, though in the case of female pairs it remains infeasible to produce male children this way without departing from the current iteration (male pairs could produce either male or female children). Larger groups of partners and parents are also found, albeit less rarely; nonetheless, only two genetic contributors are generally allowed for any given child.
Single parents are also permitted, if they are considered to have the time and resources to raise a child by themselves. However, it is considered undesirable and generally illegal for one individual to be the only genetic contributor to another individual; to do so through the combination of gametes poses a high risk of a form of inbreeding, while reproductive cloning, though possible, is deprecated on the grounds of genetic diversity; although in theory it may be allowed for the preservation of a vital trait, this is rarely done, and only at the discretion of the state.
Singers adhering to the current iteration have a number of sensory capabilities that mark them off from the unmodified population; while most of these can be significantly altered between individuals via modding, as a general rule they remain valid for most of the population.
Sight: The Singers of Minarboria have diverged somewhat from those in Shimmerspring when it comes to standard visual capabilities, a consequence of spending more time above ground and in daylight. Nonetheless, though not quite as sharp-eyed in the dark as their cousins, they remain far more capable in that regard than any unmodified human.
This is due in part to the presence of a tapetum lucidum, a retroreflective layer within the eye that is capable of supplying more light to the photoreceptors. Light input is further regulated by a very wide range of pupil dilation. The result is a range of visual function in anything from direct, bright daylight to starlight; while unaided vision below ground is not feasible, even a simple candle is more than sufficient to ensure a sure footing. As a rule, unmodified humans tend to find Singer dwellings and cities more dimly lit than is comfortable.
Minarborian Singers are tetrachromats, possessing four types of cone cells in their eyes, each capable of detecting a different color range. Most humans are trichomats, and Singers share with them the "red", "green" and "blue" cone cells, but Singers have a fourth, most sensitive in the ultraviolet. As a result, Singers are capable of distinguishing a wider range of colors and color mixtures than the unmodified, a fact reflected in the presence of a large number of fairly untranslatable color words in their everyday speech. By convention, most signs and other informational visual aids meant for public consumption are kept distinguishable within the normal visual range, for the purposes of interspecies usage, but Singer visual arts make considerable use of the extra dimensions of color, and may therefore not always be fully appreciated by non-Singers.
Thermoreception: Singers have some capacity to visualize heat, although this ability is not housed in the eyes, but in a series of tiny pits strung immediately on either side of the nose and curving below the adjacent eye. Sensitive to the wavelengths of infrared associated with heat emission, their input is transmitted to the visual centers of the brain and is integrated with that of the eyes, giving hotter objects extra "brightness". This sense is fairly low-resolution and poor at distinguishing between lower temperatures, especially compared to the equivalent sense of Shimmerspring Singers, and therefore a Singer unable to use his or her eyes will, in most conditions, only perceive a vague, cloudy "dark" background with blobs of "light" where heat sources are.
Hearing: The hearing range of Singers is approximately 30 Hz to 70 KHz; while this mostly overlaps with that of normal humans, it leaves a Singer with standard hearing unable to perceive some low-frequency sounds that humans are capable of hearing. As a result, Singer voices, instruments, and music tend on average to have higher pitches than standard.
In the higher frequencies of their range, Singers are capable of distinguishing pulses that allow for echolocation. While most Singers cannot naturally produce the required sonic pulses themselves without mods, many carry with them a small whistle or flute of traditional design, capable of the same effect. In some cases, where introducing a light source in a dark area is either undesirable or infeasible, a sonic pulse generator may be placed to allow echolocation.
Smell: The Singer sense of smell is, on average, fairly acute, several hundred times more sensitive than that of a human, though far short of that of (for example) a dog. Although this does not necessarily mean that they are more susceptible to being overpowered by a scent in the sense of sensory overload, they may put more effort into avoiding or removing those scents they find unpleasant, which can bother them at far greater distances. Singers are therefore generally scrupulous in cleaning up and sealing waste, particularly organic or chemical wastes, that might cause them distress if left in the open too long.
Singers are more sensitive to some substances than others, but in particular their olfaction is keyed to the wide range of chemical signals used by their society in everyday life. This includes the previously-mentioned olfactory signatures, the identifying smells unique to each individual, as well as more general signals: smells indicating states of mood, of alarm or distress, calmness, dominance or submission, even sexual availability. Most such signals - aside from the signatures - are emitted only through conscious action, as uncontrolled release would not only risk emotional and physiological chain reactions, but would severely undermine the ability to keep one's own privacy.
The Singers' attunement to these signals is such that it passes beyond the boundaries of mere smell. Embedded in the nose are organs that, while serving as receptors for the signal molecules in a way similar to those involved in olfaction, transmit them in parallel to different regions of the brain. Were the sense of smell to be weakened or lost, a Singer might no longer consciously smell the signals of other Singers, but would nonetheless feel their effects so long as this other chemoreceptive facility remained intact. For example, a Singer with all other senses deadened could become aware of the presence of another Singer simply by inhaling, even though he or she would not be conscious of any smell; he or she would simply “know” they were there.