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[Supers] The Ultimate Super-Soldier Serum


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I initially wrote this essay as background information for a Mutants and Masterminds character. Subsequently I realized it might be a good basis for a whole sci-fi Alternate History scenario or a "people with superpowers" RPG setting. It is based on the purposeful assumption that the average superhuman in the scenario/setting is a powerhouse that behaves much like the gods and heroes in the Greek and Norse myths rather than the morally-upstanding paragons and street-level vigilantes in classic comic-books. Besides pagan myths and related RPGs such as Scion, other inspirations for the concept include Kirby's the Eternals, the Authority, and Ultimate Marvel. As it concerns the time of the divergence, it is by default assumed to occur sometime between the eve of WWII and modern times, much like in the vast majority of superheroic fiction. With a few tweaks, however, it may be moved to pretty much any point in history. You are kindly encouraged to discuss the social and historical consequences of this divergence.

The Phoenix Process

A genetic engineering treatment in drug form (officially dubbed the “Phoenix Process”, but often nicknamed “ambrosia” or “manna”) is discovered that allows, if successful, permanent and inheritable transformation of normal humans into living batteries and collectors of cosmic/stellar energies with powerful psionic superhuman abilities. These powers are fueled by ambient cosmic sources, are effectively inexhaustible in normal circumstances, and typically have a rough energy output which allows destroying a tank with a single blow or withstanding anti-tank weapons with scarce effort even in the weakest individuals. Greater levels of power, possibly all the way to godlike levels, come naturally to some Empowered individuals and are attainable by all with enough effort and training.

The drug usually grants a baseline power set that includes superhuman strength, enhanced agility and reflexes, enhanced stamina, superhuman resilience, immortality, regeneration, immunity to diseases and toxins, flight, energy manipulation, immunity to suffocation and starvation, telekinesis, immunity to environmental extremes, enhanced senses, and shape-shifting. Subjects also gain a perfect body, with enhanced appearance and full conscious control over its biological processes, and high-level intellectual faculties. Less universal but still quite common powers include biological manipulation, super-speed, and matter manipulation. Many Empowered may manifest one or more custom powers in addition to the standard set that often relate to their personality and interests, such as enhanced charisma, teleportation, illusions, mental control, telepathy, invisibility, intangibility, etc. Many others may develop one or more baseline powers beyond the standard level of their peers as their personal abilities. A few may focus so much on their personal abilities that their standard powers get somewhat weakened.

An Empowered person is immortal and quite difficult to kill: sufficient damage - the heaviest conventional weapons or a tactical nuke for the weakest Empowered, a nuclear blast or an all-out attack from another superhuman for stronger or more experienced individuals, a concerted attack from their peers or super-science weapons for the most powerful among their ilk - may kill them or cause them severe harm, but they also have the ability to recover from bodily injuries at a very rapid rate. However, their control over their powers is critically reliant on their willpower, self-confidence, and faith in their own abilities. Therefore to suffer serious emotional damage or extreme fear, doubt, or despair may temporarily cripple their ability to access their powers.

While the powers granted by the treatment are psionic in nature, they are fueled by the cosmic energies which the Empowered are able to channel and store. If they are somehow cut off from cosmic and stellar emissions, as it may happen if they are underground, underwater, inside radiation shielding, or otherwise exposed to effects seriously draining or interfering with the energies of the stars, they may temporarily lose access to all but the least energy-intensive of their powers. Energy-starved Empowered may retain their powers for a limited time, such as a few minutes of heavy use or about an hour of moderate use, by consuming personal reserves of cosmic energy and limited amounts of one’s body mass. When personal reserves reach dangerously low levels, they may focus the residual on maintaining bodily integrity and minimal life processes. The subject then instinctively slips into a death-like trance and may survive in this state almost indefinitely.

Certain materials with little chemical reactivity, such as noble metals and noble gases, painfully disrupt the energy matrix metabolism that stores stellar energies in the Empowered bodies. Contact with non-trivial amounts of noble gases greatly fatigues, pains, and nauseates the Empowered, up to incapacitating levels if the contact is sustained or the offending material is present in large amounts. Long-term exposure (usually a matter of minutes, less for a large-enough amount) may cause them to slip into a deathlike coma, much as they were starved of cosmic energies. This won't prevent them from recovering once the material is removed, though. The Empowered also are vulnerable to attacks made with noble metals. The effect is rather less extreme than contact with noble gases, but it remains remarkably painful and it makes noble metals much more effective than any other conventional weapon.

Empowered in dire straits may push their powers beyond their usual limits by giving in to the dark side of their psyches, but at a hefty price. In extreme circumstances - e.g. close friends or loved ones in serious danger, their own survival or the lives of people they are sworn to protect at stake, an hated enemy about to prevail - an Empowered may purposefully unleash untapped reserves of power tied to their darkest emotions of rage, hate, and fear. This allows them to unleash their full psionic potential and increase their normal power limits by 50-75%. The price to pay is that for some days, even the most stable Empowered is plagued by the mental or power-control problems that typically affect their less fortunate kindred. Less stable individuals instead experience an increase in frequency or intensity of their usual troubles, or additional problems temporarily manifest. Alternatively, the individual sometimes may completely lose control of oneself and one’s powers for a time (typically several hours or until made unconscious), with typical effects such as turning into an horrifying monster, falling into a feral enraged state, randomly unleashing their destructive abilities, or losing control of their bodies to the most depraved aspects of their unconscious. [1]

The drug may be ingested or injected and acts within 48-72 hours. The process is highly unreliable, with a rather low rate (5%) of successes, a slightly higher amount (10%) of harmless apparent failures, and a very high rate (85%) of lethal failures. The drug also has the potential to cause significant psychological side effects in most Empowered individuals. In many cases (60% of responders) it induces a syndrome akin to a permanent mild stimulant intoxication, with hyper-sexuality, increased aggressiveness, reduced empathy, arrogance, impulsivity, overconfidence, and sensation-seeking. Alternatively or in addition, these subjects may find themselves burdened with the distressing tendency of their abilities to manifest at undesirable or inappropriate times during stressful situations. The actions of the uncontrolled power express the subconscious drives and desires of the subject, dealing with the cause of the stress first, as it were an entity of a prankish or hostile nature. The subject has to struggle mentally in order to bring the power under control. An ability that cannot inflict damage will activate unexpectedly, in inconvenient and embarrassing ways. An harmful or destructive ability goes after obvious enemies first, and never turns against the owner, but nobody else is safe. In a minority (20%) of cases, the drug induces a more severe mental disorder, such as megalomania, paranoia, or psychopathy, or less frequently homicidal mania, delusions, or hallucinations; only in a few cases (20%) it causes no side effects. [2]

There are a few individuals (“optimals”) who carry a rare set of genetic markers and always achieve a reliable and safe superhuman transformation with no side effects, if exposed to the drug. It is possible to artificially reproduce the effect of the “optimal” genes with very complex and expensive genetic engineering treatments.

The success rate may be significantly increased (20% of test subjects survive and are Empowered) if the subject experiences extreme emotional states or severe physical or mental stress - e.g. during combat, severe fear or rage, clear and imminent threat to one’s life, or strong sexual arousal - in the 48-72 hours following the administration of the drug. It is possible to seek such a state purposefully by combining drug intake with activities like extreme sports, orgiastic sex, or ritual combat. The likelihood of psychological or power-control side effects is unaffected or may even be significantly increased, however.

Some subjects (10%) that are exposed to the drug may survive with no apparent effects (“latents”); the drug still causes the typical genetic changes, which however fail to manifest for the time being. These individuals, or their descendents after puberty, may still “erupt” and manifest powers during extremely stressful situations.

The drug is an extract from a rare plant discovered in the Himalaya. The plant may be grown in a greenhouse environment, and the drug may be refined from it with some effort. The active component of the extract is a retrovirus that has become integrated in the genome of the plant and is only active on humans. The drug may be artificially synthesized with complex and expensive genetic engineering procedures. The retrovirus rewrites the genome of the host, therefore the change from human to Empowered is irreversible and may be transmitted to one’s progeny.

The Empowered have full control of their biology, including their reproductive capabilities, so they only have children when they want to. The progeny of an Empowered resembles remarkably attractive, healthy, and intelligent human children. They are born with all the potential abilities and powers of their forebears, but they only develop them gradually. Very young children (0-6 years old) only have 20% of the power level of adults; older children (7-11 years old) develop them to 40%, and adolescents (12-16 years old) reach 60% of adult power levels.

If the drug is given to a human embryo in vitro, a spontaneous abortion occurs in 80% of cases, while in 20% of cases the embryo develops into an Empowered child. The latter always happens if the embryo carries the “optimal” genes. If the drug is administered to a pregnant woman, and she survives as a “latent”, the effect is similar to administration in vitro if the process occurs within the 7th week of development; past that point the outcome tends to resemble drug intake in an adult. The child will always be an Empowered if the fetus carries the “optimal” genes, and the same usually happens if the mother transforms into a superhuman and chooses to complete the gestation. Given their vast genetic differences, the Empowered and normal humans are not inter-fertile, unless the former use their biological manipulation powers to bridge the genetic gap; in such a case, they would almost always cause an Empowered fetus to develop.

Given their shape-shifting powers and hyper-sexuality, the Empowered may or may not retain a preferred/exclusive gender and sexual orientation, long-term partner, and recognizable physical form. Most do at least some sexual experimentation, have serious trouble with monogamy, and routinely change minor physical features as it strikes their fancy. Many become promiscuous, develop form-dependent bisexuality, and often make substantial changes to their looks. Individuals born Empowered seem to be naturally bisexual and polyamorous, and give no more concern to changing their gender or physical form than normal humans do to choice of clothes.

All but the most psychologically-adjusted Empowered tend to be self-important, arrogant, short-tempered, and individualistic. As a rule, they only heed the rules they deem appropriate or gave explicit consent to, and only willingly obey the authorities they trust and respect on a personal basis, or demonstrably stronger individuals than themselves. Insults, humiliation, or disrespect just set them off, and so do attempts to boss them around without their consent or trust, or at least superior force. Any such thing may cause them to lash out at the offending party, although not necessarily with lethal force depending on circumstances and severity of the offense. To bully an Empowered without being one, however, is to take one's life in one's hands.

Special drugs, taken on a daily basis, may temporarily suppress the most severe psychological disorders, such as megalomania, paranoia, or psychopathy, but not the milder version of the side-effects syndrome. However they must be taken willingly, or the metabolism of the Empowered subject shall reject them. Rumor has it that rigorous and difficult meditation regimens may also allow to significantly increase the success rate of the treatment with little or no psychological or power-control side effects, and to control such problems if they are practiced regularly.

Given the complex and specific effects of the Phoenix Process, several scientists hypothesize its artificial origin, although it radically exceeds the capacities of human technology and it does not seem to be a recent development. More than one researcher has noticed the similarities between the abilities and psychological makeup of the Empowered and the powers and behavior of supernatural characters in several myths and legends.

Fringe science theorists speculate the Phoenix drug may have been part of an ancient genetic engineering experiment on humans by advanced alien visitors, or was created by a pre-historical advanced human civilization or even by Empowered time-travelers seeking to ensure the eventual birth of their race in a closed time loop. Others hypothesize certain myths and legends, such as the Indo-European religions, arose from the misunderstood feats and memories of a group of ancient Empowered. In all evidence, however, any such individuals as well as the hypothetical creators of the Phoenix drug disappeared by dying out, leaving Earth, or going into seclusion long ago. However a total dying off does not seem so plausible at least for any hypothetical ancient Empowered, given their immortality and supernatural durability. [3]

[1] This part may be dropped from the Mutants and Masterminds version, due to the complexity of implementing power-boosting abilities under M&M rules.
[2] PCs (including my own character) are usually assumed to only suffer the mildest version of the side-effects syndrome if any, as various Complications.
[3] Any or even all of this may be factually true in the setting.
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