Charybdis - The Lonely Planet
It drifts through the emptiness of space, swathes of nebulous gas the closest thing it has to an atmosphere. Mists of evaporated helium coalesce in swirling clouds before settling into their liquid form, the superfluid layer stretching across a barren, frozen expanse, dipping over the cracks and scars left behind from its traumatic birth, a still portrait of its image billions of years past. Once, a star must have burned over this world, but it has long since died. All that is left is ice and darkness. It spirals aimlessly across its galaxy’s edge, part of no system, not even a moon to its name. The only energy here, save the interstellar void, comes from its churning molten core. But will not be long before that that heat is spent.
This world has oceans. Layers of liquid ammonia-water, a solution of countless mineral and organic compounds spewed forth from the black smoke of hydrothermal vents. There is no light in the abyss, just an endless darkness to match that of the void beyond. But here at least there is warmth. Energy. The fuel of life. And even here, assailed by entropy at very turn, life finds a way.
It is possible that macroscopic predators once existed here, devouring other species to sustain themselves. But if they have, their legacy is lost to the cold. An intricate network of symbiotic relationships has been established by what diaspora of species endure the extreme environment. With the world’s heat dying it, any creature a metabolism beyond the glacial simply cannot survive for long, and though parasites exist, to destroy their hosts would lead only to mutual destruction- a detrimental adaptation. Even filter-feeders are a rarity. Beyond shoals of warring microbes, there is no such thing is a hunter. Competition takes the form of monopolised energy sources and even this is limited, for in one way or another, all life must contribute. That which aids only itself withers and dies for its self-destructive avarice.
That is not to say survival on Charybdis is easy. Life here is under constant attack, not from other life, but from the world itself. What hydrothermal vents are not extinct churn out only a modicum of the energy needed to sustain a thriving ecosystem, should every animal compete. But where on other worlds evolution selects through competition, on Charybdis it selects through cooperation. Life clusters around the vents that feed it. Most of it is sedentary, though some motile creatures exist, daring to cross the coldplains between hotspots to seek out new territory. But where there is sufficient energy, one form of life has attained dominance over all of the rest, become the top link in the symbiotic chain.
They are the Hekkathi, the nurturers of the dark, and they know they are going to die.
Hekkathi Biology - The Nurturers of the Dark
The Hekkathi are difficult to characterise as individuals. They are rather super-organisms, collections of multiple species bound to a singular driving consciousness, connected by a symbiotic relationship, each member species a necessary component for effective survival. To define a Hekkathi as simply the cognitive being of such a community would be to deny that it is self-sufficient, but to do otherwise is to define multiple genetic lineages with different forms and functions as identical.
Biochemically, the Hekkathi use ammoniated water as a solvent. This added ammonia benefits them, helps them protect against the acidic sulfur of the vents they feed upon. They use organic components as a backbone but contain more nitrogenous material than most species. Their respiration is an oddity, for it is not limited to one form alone. They may use oxygen, or sulfur, or organic material if needed to supply them with energy- because it is not the Hekkathi itself that metabolises every fragment that enters it. Vast microbiomes do the brunt of the work when it comes to non-sulfuric respiration, donating fractions of this energy in the form of waste expulsions.
Anatomy and Macrobiome
Looking upon a Hekkathi, one would be hard-pressed to identify it as of sapient intelligence. It is sedentary, resembling a twisted, armoured plant, vines striking into nearby cracks, anchors holding it into whatever trench or geyser forms its base. It is a fusion of plant and tubeworm, appearing far more a coral analogue than a sentient being. Stretching from its roots are capsules, bulbous sacs containing various cultivated microbiomes. These are carefully monitored and controlled, for the breeding of superior bacteria is the pathway to survival for a creature in the bleak depths of Charybdis. Budding clusters of tissue emerge, some of them containing an equivalent of neutral tissue, true cephalisation occurring not only in the central mass but in these outgrowths too.
The largest Hekkathi, technically individuals, stretch across entire fields of sufluric smoke, but the smallest, malnourished, are less impressive than even human size. Surrounding their central mass and primary nodes are a series of gelatinous strings, formed like the tissue of a cone jelly, with their own chambers tethered to the main mass. More microbiomes, incubators for symbiotic bacteria, producing the true lifeblood of a Hekkathi.
Every cell within a Hekkathi can encyst itself in dire situations, though doing so is frequently a death sentence or a stopgap measure. They will gladly cut off portions of their own body from nutrients to preserve organs of importance. Indeed, their very existence is a macabre struggle of deciding when and what to grow, which microbiomes to cultivate or discard, which neighbours to form intimate connections with and which will only cause commensal frustration.
Hekkathi have indeed a natural form of technology and agriculture. They have evolved as masters of this world, as those who lord over other life, choosing which to feed with valuable life-sap and which to shun, frequently able to monopolise entire energy supplies. They thus form intricate yet tenuous bonds with other organisms- similar to all visible life here, but with an essential difference, the presence of conscious thought. They are not operators out of instinct, but capable of deliberation, contemplation, reflection. And more than any other, it is they on Charybdis who control the fate of life. Upon their bodies they permit or disallow near-parasitic filter feeders, supplying them with worthless microbes in exchange for useful energy. Their ability to nurture life has led to the creation of ‘macrobiomes’, ecosystems based around the Hekkathi presence, sustained and exploited by them. They wield life as a weapon to survive, using biotechnology over the span of countless generations.
For they are long lived. Their metabolism is slow even relative to their world. They waste none of their own tissues, cannibalising themselves when they need to retract their armoured vines, even nerve-tissue constantly recycled, their ‘brain’s circled with tissue like the rings of a tree trunk. They do not only observe evolution, they exploit it out of necessity- it is their greatest edge beyond cognition. For all this, their senses are limited. Sight and hearing serve no purpose in the depths, not when all they seek out is new vents to claim. Chemical senses are their strongest, and they can feel, though lack any kind of pain, just exceptional discomfort. Given their reaction time, that much is enough.
All Hekkathi are hermaphrodites, with near-incidental reproduction. Within a singular colony, reproduction is as simple as the exchange of gametes between stamen, or between intertwined extensions. But to colonise new territory requires a more complex solution. Fragments of existing nerve-tissue are excised from the central mass, forming a gelatinous globule covered in encysted reproductive cells, left to the mercy of the ocean currents. Should they find a suitable habitat they will release their cysts, the central bud forming the beginnings of a new colony. If not, they drift ever onward, until they die of starvation or discover an existing colony to be a part of. Since they used existing neural tissue, these can be used to transmit long-distance messages between colonies, but doing so is almost always accidental- an emergency preparation, not an intentional act.
Hekkathi minds are formed from omnidirectional coils of nerve-tissue, connecting to differing junctions and stretching arrays of secondary nerves, all contributing to thought. Their reflexes are automatic, requiring minimal metabolism. But their active thoughts are expensive. A single flare of clustered neurons expends far too much energy for them to waste on a daily basis- though their conception of time lacks the idea of a day, year, or even lifespan. A Hekkathi thinks at a glacial pace- but it does think.
Communication between individuals is difficult to do beyond neighbours. For they lack a language, as such. They communicate with chemicals and hormones and electrical pulses, as though connected individuals were all part of a single, massive body. To some, it is the easiest way to conceptualise them. And though they waste not energy, they can afford to think about the state of their world. Cooperation demands sociality to a degree, and they have become dependent on such things as communication over time. It is a distraction. A necessary one. For as evolution has selected for the most generous yet devious minds, it has improved their intelligence, allowed them to think further ahead. Echoes of the past flash in their minds, the result of remaining nerve-tissue from past forms. Even newly founded colonies contain a fragment of their origin in the brain of their first active member, who must curate the environment to the needs of uncysting newbuds.
The ideas of exploitation and competition exist to the Hekkathi. But they do not conceptualise predation. To destroy other life, to them, is an affront. It is masochistic. Suicidal. Treachery. For in their view, all life is united in its goal. They survive through cooperation- their only enemy is the environment itself, limited in energy, even that withering away. They have come to realise it- that their world will so go extinct, all life upon it extinguished. They know they sit upon the final generations of their kind, the end approaching. And they despise the world for it. The Hekkathi mindset is simultaneously cynical and naive. They believe that murder is impossible for any species they can conceive of, but they see life itself as a war against the world they live upon.
There are minor digressions, too. Down, to them, is the direction of prominence, the direction of all worth possessing- upward is only coldness they cannot survive. Their world is limited, and trapped underwater they will develop no fire- not that their bodies could grasp true technology. But they do have civilisation. The Hekkathi are on the very brink of what could be considered a society worthy of clientship, but they are an anomaly, a fascination, trapped in a situation with few parallels. They have no conception of war, or murder, or sadism, or pain- yet at their roots, they are ruthless pragmatists. Looking upon the universe, seeing all the death and destruction spread by other species, they will feel misery- but they will know also that it is they who in the end have triumphed, achieved sensible cooperation where species with exponentially more energy have not. And to them, fast life is difficult to comprehend. Where most struggle to deal with the pondering length of their thoughts, they struggle to deal with the fleeting speed of a typical race’s existence.
Hekkathi Society - The Karachi Trench Colony
The Karachi Trench Colony was founded by the last globule sent from a dying colony, fragments of the final survivor’s mind forming the basis of the community’s beginning. This macabre foundation is a contributing factor when it comes to what can be described as the culture or philosophy of this desperate collective- that all life is a harrowing, ultimately futile yet ultimately necessary struggle against the universe. Though the Karachi Trench Colony is communal, resources shared for mutual benefit, it is not devoid of competition, and it operates under a kind of primal hierarchy, with geographical positioning being a key factor in determining one’s role.
The colony’s founder, his mind reforged and remoulded over the three generations that the cluster has existed, serves as the chief philosophical voice in the community, and is the closest thing to a leader that the Karachi Trench Colony possesses- though the very idea of individual leadership is perplexing to them given the ubiquity of mutualism on Charybdis. A venerated veteran of the war against the world, Karachi- after whom the colony is named- is treated with considerable respect. He is seen as a mentor and a father to them all. But for all his social influence, his economic position is grim. Heat from the vents no longer reaches even the deepest edges of his vines, and he is utterly dependent on the whims of his neighbours to survive. Truly in control is the so-called Prime Producer, Tekathikra, an adventurous soul who risked exposure to the intense heat of the deep vents and was rewarded with an eventual monopoly on the trench’s primary smoker. It is he, in the end, who wields the most influence, accounting for an exceptional fraction of the colony’s energy supply, and its greatest continuous source of organic material. He is tethered to a chthonic throne, rich as others begin to starve, but he does not succumb to commensal selfishness- to do so would be antithetical to the colony’s philosophy.
Fifty-one other designated producers collect energy from the vents, most specialised for this purpose, but most lacking the need to be especially cognisant despite the capability of doing so. Their lives abound with struggle- sudden changes in acidity, fluctuating tectonic activity, and collaboration struggles with their neighbours- but their lives do not hang on the edge of oblivion. Connected to them are thirty-two members of the Reticulum, generous benefactors who by will or circumstance elect to be the most fragile component of this entire colony. They distribute energy from the sulfuric chasms below to those who dwell above, preserving life that would otherwise fade away. Eight excavators extend lithotrophic biofilms across the layers of rock that surround the colony, gathering minerals to maintain the limited supply on the metal-poor world.
Those above the deepest depths, where geothermal energy is no longer viable, offer their own services, make themselves indispensable in other ways. There are eighty-two cultivators, experts in the creation of microbiomes and macrobiomes alike, overseers of evolution, and perhaps the closest thing this exotic civilisation possesses to an ordinary citizen. Five nurses, scattered strategically about, eliminate what little disease such a world possesses, use their energy reserves to rescue dying Hekkathi from the cold embrace of death- such as the current eleven stragglers, wastes not by choice but by circumstance, healed and sustained by the merciful world-hatred of their kin so that they may one day come to flourish again. Then there are the seven forethinkers, specialised in cephalic tissue, the greatest, fastest minds of the collective. They seek answers, solutions to the problems they conceive, contemplate and debate the nature of their coming oblivion and any way to stop it. They also serve as judges, scrutinising the actions of their neighbours to determine if any commensals or other detrimental entries linger with the Karachi Trench Colony. Each of them is placed upon the surface because they encircle their founder, drawing upon his enduring wisdom for guidance in their pursuits.
There is another cognitive specialist, the junction node known as Mezakithkron. He serves as emissary to the Nexus, the link to their possible salvation and destruction. He is kept alive not for any resource he produces, but for the inevitable necessity of the exploitative collaboration between the Hekkathi and other Clients.
The very existence of the Nexus is a revelation to this species, for it has revealed them to be the exception, exposed them to the inane and incomprehensible cruelty of life towards other life. The Karachikath know they are weak, know they are helpless before the speed of the fleeting fast-livers, but know also that they alone comprehend the true nature of the world, that they alone can achieve the equilibrium necessary for true prosperity. And with the secrets of the cosmos and technology within their grasp, they may yet find a way to prevail in the endless struggle, to survive for an eternity- or, more dangerously, come to embrace the sadistic madness of their cosmic peers.
The Nexus Gate on Charybdis is directly linked to the Karachi Trench, connected by the now designated nurse responsible for linking to the junction node.
Karachikath philosophy can be summarised in the idea of the ‘futile struggle’- that all life is simply a fight against death, a triumph over the cruel whims of the world. The Trench Colony is dominated by a panmisotheistic worldview, a fundamental hatred of the world itself. They have no such abstractions as a full religion- such invisible concepts are not worth wasting the energy it takes for cognition on- but they do have an innate mysticism, a belief that all they do not control, cultivate and exploit is out to get them, a paranoia justified by the relentless cold edging ever closer. They know for certain that the heat will soon die out, that only a few more generations can survive here, and that the world will surely be met with oblivion.
For no other reason than to spite fate- or such is their justification for an innate biological imperative- they struggle not only to survive, but for allow all life within their influence to survive. Even commensal members of society cannot be cut off, cannot be punished too severely, for they at least are a part of the struggle. Each individual is free to have their own ambitions, to contest resources, but not a single Hekkathi death is permissible. Microbiome capsules cannot be disturbed, macrobiome components are carefully monitored, and the dying are saved by any means necessary, all out of sheer, unrelenting hatred of the world, of this cruel universe. To other species, their views may seem a paradox, a pacifist yet hate-fuelled collective that does not comprehend murder. But to them, it is simple. All life must be preserved.
But the Nexus has changed everything.
Their omnipresent fatalism has succumbed to a differing worldview, yet one perhaps even more pitiable. Those who dare to accept it- some still believe it an elaborate conspiracy to waste cognition energy or scare individuals into reckless concessions- see the Nexus itself as both their salvation and a harbinger of their demise. For beyond their world is an endless expanse of energy. That which they need to survive for a lifetime is expended by some cultures in a fraction of a second- and what saddens them most is that that energy is often wasted, not used to save life but to end it. The very thought is worse than malice or parasitism or even death itself, for it is life-treachery, a betrayal of the very purpose of life’s existence. In the span of a single Hekkathi thought, an entire planet’s biosphere can be wiped out by deliberate choice. And this is in a species for whom the idea of natural predation is abhorrent, let alone mass genocide.
For this reason, though they would preserve all life if given the chance, the Karachikath are absolute xenophobes with a fundamental inclination to distrust and despise all other beings, beings that waste their fleeting lives on little more than masochistic self-destruction. For all the hope the Nexus offers- energy, technology, and understanding of the truth- it is perhaps understandable that some Karachikath, informed of the reality of an infinite number of premeditated deaths stretching out into an invisible oblivion, choose to cannibalise all nerve-tissue that recalls such abhorrent considerations, choose to embrace naive ignorance over the cynical truth.