I Didn't Ask to Get Made
I own absolutely nothing. All characters referenced herein—with the possible exception of the 'White Coats', as Rocket calls them in my story—are the sole property of Marvel.
So! After watching Guardians of the Galaxy, I just had to write a piece exploring Rocket's origin story. To any GotG comic fans that may have stumbled across this, I apologize profusely: I have not yet read the comics, I know next to nothing about Rocket's origin story other than what the film implies, and as a result, I will probably end up butchering the canon with a chainsaw. I suppose I could have read the comics first, and then satisfied my muse afterward. (But then where would be the fun in that?)
"I didn't ask to get made. I didn't ask to be torn apart and put back together over and over and turned into some little monster."
When he thinks about his life, it's in terms of the Before and After. Before the cognitive modifications, he led a simple, relatively pleasant existence, albeit a caged one in a laboratory. His advanced cerebral capacities—made possible through genetic enhancement—lay dormant for the most part. Even so, occasional flashes of a level-five intelligence piqued the White Coats' interest in him, prompting them to put him through cognitive modifications. And After those modifications—
Well, whole new realms of understanding were unlocked to him. His simple, static existence erupted into a world of color, emotion, language, and pain. His Pandora's Box had been opened, his Eden forcibly vacated, his Thel-Caria quadrant conquered. Nothing could ever be the same again.
Language was particularly fascinating, once he was able to grasp the point of it. Words were such strange things. How cold and detached they could be, words like "dissect" and "terminate." How crisp and clean-sounding, to cover up the horrible realities—
"Commencing dissection of subjects 827–832. Subjects conscious, so that their brain activity can be observed during the dissection."
The only family he has ever known, torn apart like so much meat. Through the cage glass, he watches, and trembles. Somehow, they are awake—they cling to consciousness despite the carnage.
"Subjects 827–832 terminated."
The only family he has ever known, killed. Their eyes unseeing. Their life blood drained out.
"Dissection of subject 832, as with previous dissections, supports evidence of a level-three intelligence at best. All tests indicate failure of cognitive and cybernetic modifications of subjects 827–832. Post-surgical tests performed on subject 826, however, demonstrate a level-seven intelligence, the highest mark that this project has produced to-date. Cochlear and retinal feed to be implanted."
He does not remember being changed by the White Coats. He only remembers the pain of waking up After, to find strange things in his chest and back—hard, cold things that don't belong there, that smell completely wrong. He whines and tries to bite out the pieces that he can reach with his mouth, and scratch out the ones that he can't, but nothing seems to work. What's worse, digging at the pieces hurts him, as if they were a part of him after all, flesh and bone.
He will later learn that they extend far below his skin, into what the White Coats call his "neural system".
"Cochlear and retinal implants activated in subject 826. Start with rate of audio-visual feed at sixty percent."
A sudden inpouring of information, fed to him nonstop with too-bright images and too-loud sounds that, at the time, he can't even recognize as words. The sounds and images stay with him, no matter how much he whines and scrapes at his ears, no matter how tightly he shuts his eyes. The feed is with him as he sleeps. It's meant to teach him, to accelerate his learning, to make him More, but it's all too-much, too-much.
"Increase rate of audio-visual feed to eighty percent."
After a few months of progress, just as he is beginning to be able to pick out the words, to make some sense of the madness, they increase the speed. Everything flies by him, assaults him anew. And there is no rhyme or reason to the content—the speed at which the feed changes subjects is dizzying—vocabulary here, mathematics there, shapes that he now recognizes as "writing". He could learn this, he could, he is capable, but the relentlessness of the feed is exhausting. It's a wonder that he manages to absorb as much of it as he does.
It's a miracle that he stays sane.
"As foreseen, uneven bone growth is an unfortunate side effect of the cybernetic implants. The solution, however, is straightforward. The subject is displaying signs of agitation, but the required dosage of anesthetic has already been administered. Procedure to continue."
He is writhing and crying out in agony, but since the necessary parts of him are muzzled or otherwise restrained, the White Coats can continue their work without interference. They are not willing to waste more than the legally required amount of pain-dulling drug on him, not for a simple breaking and resetting of a foreleg.
"Tests indicate that subject 826 has exceeded all known markers for cognitive progress in genetically modified species. Increase rate of audio-visual feed to one hundred percent."
Mathematics… physics… ancient literature… memories of lost worlds… heat… colors flashing by… words, words, words… Complete sensory overload: this is his breaking point. That night, fighting every pain avoidance instinct left in him, he manages to scratch out the cochlear implant. The instant relief provided by its absence makes him weep.
Removing the retinal implant—that's much worse.
"Subject 826 performed self-removal of cochlear and retinal implants during the night. Conditioning to be applied, to discourage future tampering with cybernetic and neural modifications."
The White Coats find him in the morning with an empty eye socket, bloody claws, and the eyeball beside him almost unrecognizably mutilated from repeated attempts at removal. The air is thick with the smell of vomit.
They wake him roughly from his sleep—the only real sleep he has had in months, thanks to the feed—and bring him to a place that they call a conditioning chamber. The only thing he knows about the chamber for sure is that it is not the kind of place he wants to be—he has never been taken there himself, but has a vague memory from Before: a memory of less capable subjects being led away, their cries and whines echoing from that very room. Mentally and physically exhausted, he barely puts up any resistance as they strap him to a strange platform—"chair," his brain blurrily supplies. He startles when they press the mangled remains of his eyeball into his paw. Gloved hands point to the eye, then towards the empty socket. "No!" one of the White Coats says, punctuating each word with a jab of her finger. "No!" He blinks his remaining eye, aware that the White Coats are severely displeased with what's he done, but unsure of how best to placate them—
He isn't even given the chance to try. Without warning, a feeling like fire courses up and down his entire body. He screams, a wild, high-pitched animal scream. This is a pain even worse than his eye, if that were possible. "Electricity," his brain fills in. "Death if it doesn't stop," it adds a moment later. Maybe that would be better anyway— He is aware of his heels drumming helplessly against the base of the chair, of his ruined eyeball squeezed to a pulp in his twitching fist, and through it all, the pain snakes over him, over and over again. Finally, when he thinks he can take no more, it stops. The electrical buzz cuts out, and in its absence, he realizes that he is whimpering: a droning, involuntary whine that he hates himself for. But at least the pain is done, it's over, they will lead him back to his cage and then—
"Repeat conditioning procedure."
No. No wait, he knows better now, that won't be necessary, please just— "No!" comes the White Coat's accusing finger indicating his eye, then the place where it had been— "No!"
And then the pain.
All in all they shock him three times.
"Eye to be grown from clonal tissue, and audio-visual feed to resume at full capacity pending orbital surgery."
They give him a new eye, and patch up his ear. The feed returns, but at least the re-implantation surgeries have bought him some time—a month, maybe two months have passed since the conditioning chamber. He is More now. He can handle the feed. He has to…
"Subject 826 awakened during surgical procedure today. First known verbalization was observed and recorded, indicating success of vocal surgeries."
His situation gets a little better in a few months, once the vocal surgeries, working in tandem with his preexisting genetic modifications and cerebral implants, finally enable him to voice what he had been wordlessly screaming all along:
"N… No! Pl…Pluh… Please… Please!"
His first spoken words. Screamed out during an unplanned awakening in the middle of yet another surgery, this time an anatomical reconstruction of his shoulder joints: his species, whatever it is, clearly wasn't designed to pivot their limbs the way the White Coats want him to. So he wakes to find his shoulder red and open, pins and surgical tools angrily protruding from the newly inserted bone and muscle tissue. He panics, and finds his voice, and there is no longer any trace of animal in it. Even to the White Coats, it is inescapably apparent that he has become More.
I've been here all along, he tries to say, as the White Coats surround him, ecstatic, congratulating one another. "I've been here all along, you bastards, through every needle, operation, and fricking implant you've thrown at me, and it has to stop—I can't take any more." That's what he wants to say, but his mouth is slow to form the words, and his tongue feels dry and cumbersome. Thankfully, at least they give him more of the anesthetic. His mind slows in response to the drug, and so he lets it drift into the feed, away from the White Coats hovering over his broken body, towards images of planets and systems, other worlds bright with possibilities.
"List of remaining modifications to subject 826: Hip reconstruction to increase ease of bipedal movement. Oral surgery to improve enunciation: new tongue muscle to be grown from clonal tissue. Phalangeal and metacarpal enhancements to increase dexterity and range of motion, particularly of the thumb. Castration is a possibility, to reduce aggressive behavior and promote subject compliance, but of course the long-term benefits of eventually mating the subject in order to study his progeny and produce additional data would likely outweigh the short-term behavioral advantages of neutering…"
Sometimes the feed goes relatively dark, maybe with images of space or the deep sea, and he can look past it to see his reflection in the cage glass. And he sees how much he has changed. He has been taken apart and put back together so many times, he's not even sure that anything original remains of him. If he were ever to be released into "the wild"—a term that he learned from the feed, to encompass all natural habitats of animals, collectively—would he even be able to fend for himself? Because he can't run on all fours anymore, not really. His current form allows for short bursts of speed on all fours, if necessary, but upright movement ultimately feels more natural, albeit slower. He is no longer designed to run from predators, or to run down prey.
He is not even designed to bite anymore—something that any self-respecting animal should be able to do. He wakes up one day to discover bandages swathing his face, and restraints keeping him prone on a flat surface—panic sets in for a split-second before he remembers that this is standard procedure after an operation, to ensure that the raw tissues will heal. So he swallows the panic, and waits. A week later, when the bandages are removed and he is allowed to sit up under supervision, he finds that his jaw and facial muscles feel vastly different. His capacities for speech have been improved, and his face forms strange new contortions to reflect his thought—"expressions," his brain supplies—but his ability to bite, to cut through bone with sheer strength, has been lost. He points this out to the White Coats, hoping that maybe they will fix this new weakness. They are pleased to hear him speak again, even if in broken sentences, but in the end, they dismiss his concerns. Why should they care about his bite—his one last method of defense—so long as he can chew the food they bring him, speak the words they tell him, and emote in a way they can relate to?
Part of him understands that the White Coats are not crippling him intentionally. They are scientists, after all, pursuing what they see as advancements in their field. They are essentially "businessmen" at heart—another term from the feed—not "sadists." But they are crippling him nonetheless.
So when the feed switches from psychology, or economics, or calculus, or mechanics, to ecology, displaying images of the wild—green open spaces and a simple existence—he allows himself to dream, but he knows that it can never be. It is harmless enough to dream about the 'maybe's' of life outside of the laboratory, life apart from the White Coats: maybe he could find a territory of his own, somewhere safe and quiet. Maybe, against all odds, even without feet that can run fast or a bite that can cut bone, he could use his wits to protect himself, cobble together crude weapons and traps. Maybe he could join others of his own kind, whatever his kind might be. Maybe he could even find a female, rear young—
But no, he doesn't have a kind to join anymore. He is altogether alone in the universe, and if there were others of his species, would they even accept him in this strange form? Or would they be repulsed by his More-ness?
And would he in turn be repulsed by their animal-ness? Their vapid eyes, seeing but not seeing, bodies not acting but simply reacting, minds ruled by instinct and not intellect? Compared to him, they would be— "pathetic," his brain supplies. No, natural, he argues back, but already the dream has slipped away.
Later on, when his cognitive progress allows him to grasp the basic principles of gene splicing, epigenetics, and embryonic modification, he learns from the feed that he has always been an entirely new species, all his own. Even before the cognitive and cybernetic modifications, his genes had been manipulated. Which means that he has never been just an animal, not really. He has always been More.
"As of today, the standard operating procedure concerning subject 826 will be revised to include daily intervention sessions. During these two-hour sessions, staff members will meet with the subject to encourage verbal communication, gage comprehension, monitor psychological health, and perform additional tests to track cognitive progress."
Now that he can speak, the White Coats turn off the cochlear and retinal feed for a few hours every day so that one of them can visit him. During the visits, they try to get him to speak again. At first, he is reluctant to do so—he owes them nothing.
"Say 'hello'," the White Coat prompts him.
A sullen silence is the only response.
She prompts him again.
"I know you're capable of understanding me," she frowns, pen drumming impatiently against her clipboard. "All tests currently indicate a level-eight intelligence, equivalent to that of our own species. Additionally, you are capable of speech: your documented vocabulary includes yes, no, please, stop, bite not strong, and—" she clears her throat, has the decency to look mildly embarrassed—"you bastards," she finishes, face reddening slightly.
He smirks. Yeah, that had been a good day. The White Coats had been so shocked, had started to babble so excitedly about, "surpassing markers for verbal development," that they hadn't even punished him for his outburst.
But his expression—courtesy of the recent facial and neural reconstructions—doesn't escape the White Coat's notice. "Therefore," she continues, icily, "since you are capable of both comprehension and speech, your silence will be taken as a deliberate act of disobedience." She sits back, letting that sink in. "The conditioning chamber is always open."
"No," he rasps out, knowing that the White Coat has won, and judging from her posture, she knows it, too. His voice is a little gravelly from disuse. "No," he repeats himself, stronger this time. That won't be necessary.
"Good," she smiles artificially. "Then let's try this again. Say, 'hello'."
Okay, he could do this. He thinks about the word. "Hello (exclamation): used as a greeting, or to initiate a conversation"—a memory from the feed. He turns the word over in his mind, picturing how he will move his new throat and new tongue to shape it, how he will expel air just so. The first syllable is easy enough, and then the '–llo' part, he thinks he can manage by—
But he has waited too long, and so the White Coat is angry again, mistaking his thoughtfulness for resistance. She reaches towards a button on her comm-unit, to call in other White Coats to carry him away— No, no, wait—
"Hello," he breathes out in a rush, paw extended towards her in a placating gesture, his voice trembling. He can't hide the fear in it. "Hello."
She pauses. Lets the comm-unit slide back into her pocket, unused. The artificial smile is back.
"Excellent," she says.
We own you, he hears.
"Hello," he repeats himself, head down, defeated.
I know you do.
"Biological specimens from subjects 827–832 have been retained in deep freeze unit 4…"
The only family he has ever known. Summarily dismissed as nothing more than a string of numbers and a collection of tissues, stored on ice.
In hindsight, the other subjects had never been sentient, only animal. Nothing More. His own modifications had been deemed a resounding success; those performed on the other subjects had not. Two of them had died on the operating table, the lucky bastards. The others had been ripped apart for additional study.
He recognizes, in time, that he is mourning for the other subjects. Before, he had known anger, and he had known fear, and that was more or less the extent of his emotional repertoire. Grief, sorrow—those psychological constructs are wholly new to him, courtesy of the cognitive modifications. So After, when these new constructs—these feelings—sweep over him, it is akin to sensory overload. He doesn't know how to process or even categorize what is happening to him: he only knows that the sight of the now-empty cages around him makes his throat tighten, his eyes burn, and his heart ache with a strange pain. A pain that isn't quite physical, but in a way is so much worse.
It's not like they had shared a particularly strong bond, he and the other subjects. They hadn't been his littermates. Hell, they hadn't even been his species—he thinks most of them must have been simian at one point, selected for the project for their intelligence and opposable thumbs—but they were all the family he had ever had. His memories of them consist chiefly of wet snuffling noses, dark inquisitive eyes, and warm familiar-smelling fur. His interactions with them had been purely instinctual, devoid of emotion, limited to simplistic circadian patterns of action and reaction. None of them, not even himself at the time, had been capable of the psychological constructs he would later understand to be sympathy, or kindness, or love. No, in hindsight, whatever bond he had shared with the other subjects, he had not loved them. Their connection had been forged out of necessity, proximity, and a mutual fear of what was being done to them. Perhaps it was even based on a misplaced evolutionary drive to protect the shared genetic material—Xandarian material—that the White Coats had spliced into them. But ultimately, he had not loved the other subjects. They had never even been named. Just as he is unnamed.
And still he mourns them, even before he truly understands what mourning is. He mourns them fiercely for what they had been, and for what they could have been. To be sure, he is—pleased? no, not pleased, but "grateful"—that their existences were relatively painless. That they didn't have to suffer as long as he had. But, selfishly, he wishes that at least one of them—just one—had made it. If just one of them had survived, become More, and made the journey alongside him, then maybe he wouldn't be so lost.
Because he is More than an animal. He has always been. And yet, he is Less than a White Coat, because they own him.
So he's not sure what he is anymore. He has been taken apart and put back together so many times that maybe nothing original remains of him. All he knows is that he is—
"An unparalleled scientific achievement, unique in the fields of genetic and cybernetic modification..."
For now, this is a standalone, but if my muse allows, I would love to expand it! I know that this piece is pretty heavy on the 'hurt', and not so much on the 'comfort', and I do want to rectify that soon. When that happens, look for the other Guardians to make an appearance, beginning with Groot.
For those who are interested, I used the following quotes from the film to cobble together what I hope is a plausible backstory:
Rhomann Dey: Rocket—Wanted on over fifty charges of vehicular theft and escape from custody.
Rocket: Ain't no thing like me, 'cept me!
In other words, he doesn't realize what his species is, or the fact that there are probably others like him.
Rocket: He thinks I'm some stupid thing! He does! [points to Drax] Well, I didn't ask to get made! I didn't ask to be torn apart and put back together over and over and turned into some little monster!