This place was not deep, nor cold, nor lightless to its people. They didn’t dream of shallower, warmer, brighter waters, nor imagine that they existed. For the Ckck, the Stone-eaters, were a careful people, for whom dreams were an unaffordable luxury.
Tcctc ran his mouthparts across his shell-necklace, darting his antennae about nervously. Kttkkctck, the master, was visiting the camp today, and his group had not found enough meatrocks this period. Time flowed freely here, far from the city and its timekeepers, and the flow of time had made them careless. Now there was only the long and silent wait – Kttkkctck never clicked his approach with the proper calls. He simply appeared like a fish from the sand, expecting food to be in front of him.
At last, from afar, he heard the message on the sounding rock and tensed in fright.
“Cttkkct speaks. Kttkkctck arrives. Finished.”
He began to shuffle towards the rock, biting uselessly on his shell-necklace now. It was wearing thin after many periods of feeling, and if he bit it too hard it might break. But nothing lasts forever, Tcctc reminded himself. At one time, this necklace had been new and thick and good-tasting. At one time, Kttkkctck had been merciful. No longer.
He counted his steps to the speaking circle and arrived a quite a few steps early – his fear gave him longer strides. He felt his way across the edge of the speaking circle, recognizing his friends in turn by the notches on their tails. He found himself hoping first for their survival, and then wondering who might be punished, if not him. His left antenna didn’t need to be made any shorter than it already was.
He found his seat and settled, and clicked his arrival. “Tcctc is here.”
“All are here,” clicked the thick claws of the master. “We will begin. Kttkkctck speaks.”
“Tcctc, forgiven for lateness, speaks.”
“Cttkkct, forgiving, speaks. All are spoken.”
“Asking for feeling. Waits.”
“Good, master. Waits.”
“Good, master. Waits.”
“Good, and honored, master. Waits.”
“Good, and most honored, master. Waits.”
“Pleased. Asking for meatrock counts. Waits.”
“Presenting counts. Forgiving for lack, master.”
Cttkkct stopped his clicking to pick up a shell tablet, inscribed with the counts of the period’s gatherings. He presented it to Kttkkctck, who took it in turn and read it with his mouthparts. He stopped, then read it again. There was a long and fearful pause, which the weak ones dared not break.
“Explain lack. Waits.”
“Waits.” Tcctc fondled his shell fervently.
“This current brings hungry fish. Many meatrocks are eaten, so we lack. Waits.”
“Asking for death of fish. Asking for laziness. Waits.”
“Was not lazy. Scared fish. Waits.”
“Was also not lazy and scared fish. Waits.”
“Was most certainly not lazy and scared fish. Waits.”
“Was diligent in all works, including scaring of fish. Tcctc and Kktkt were somewhat lazy. Waits.”
The two of them recoiled in fear – they had been dreading this moment. Tcctc felt his tail curling back involuntarily, forcing him to suppress his urge to flee. Tttck, who sat calmly between them, was safe, as the record showed.
“Not asking for scaring fish. Death of fish. Too lazy to kill? Waits.”
“Fish are fast, master. Even hookbaits fail. Shamed. Waits”
“Fish are also fast, master. Escaping before nets close. Most humbly shamed. Waits.”
“Speaking truth, but also pearl-taking. Waits.”
Tcctc wrenched his hands in anger and just barely kept them from clicking in outrage. The fiend! The coward! With no pearls on the record, the secret gathering of them would be a grave offense. He’d taken one or two, certainly, but only in the course of his duties. He felt a vibration to his left, however, and noticed that Kktkt was quivering in the water. Tcctc fell calm, realizing he might not need worry after all.
Kttkkctck paused to read the records again in this time, and the water bubbled as he darted around to face Kktkt directly. The others were barred from the conversation. Kktkt shied away even as his master addressed him with fast and furious clicks.
“Asking truth of pearl-taking. Waits.”
“No, most honored master, nev-”
“Asking truth of pearl-taking. Waits.”
Interruption was an offense reserved for the upper castes. The others began to back away, knowing what was coming next.
“Ten pearls. Finding in gathering meatrocks. Not pearl-taking, just luck. Waits.”
Kttkkctck’s attack was fast, but not unexpected. Kktkt fought back, feebly, but the master’s shell was thicker, his claws were stronger. in a few short moments, Kttkkctck had his left hand gripped firmly on the lip of Kktkt’s shell, between his neck and shoulder, and snapped a large chunk off. The servant spasmed and clicked violently as the master darted away, a new prize tucked into a basket at his neck.
“Bringing twelve pearls with meatrocks in five currents. Knowing you have more. Expecting better next period. Finished.”
The master turned, quiet as he came, and shuffled off into the darkness, back towards the stacked-stone road to the city. Tcctc and the others shuffled away also, past their pain-stunned fellow, towards the stacked-stone huts where food and still waters waited.
He cursed Kttkkctck’s cunning, for without it he might have kept his pearls and bought a new shell-necklace. Perhaps that of a higher caste than his last; it would be folly to dream of buying a Stone, but anything that made his shell stronger would be worth the trouble. Was it too much to dream of life beyond the meatrock-gathering fields?
Tcctc cursed Kttkkctck’s mercy briefly, as well, for had Kktkt been slain there would have been a feast and new shell-necklaces for everyone, though both would be bland and neither would last. But it could have just as easily been him, and he would have wanted mercy, surely. Such was the strangeness of greed.
The Ckck language consists of three syllables, made by tapping their (three-digited) claws together. “C” is a single-digit tap. “T” is a multiple-digit tap. “K” is a drag. You can technically sound it out with your fingernails but it makes my head spin, even. No, I don’t know Morse Code, but somehow I think that would make it harder.
The Ckck range from 4 to 7 feet in length, and usually standing 3 to 4 feet off the seafloor, depending on age and nutrition. Their bodies produce very little waste, as most indigestible materials crystallize in their shells. It is this property that defines their culture.
Living as deep as they do, the Ckck cannot afford to waste anything. They can eat flesh and plants easily, but can also consume hard materials over time by gnawing on something with their “mouthparts”, as they call them. The consumption of Stone – in reality, iron sulfides and other concentrated ores – defines their culture.
The upper caste, the Miners, have the honor of excavating Stone from established veins, and so are allotted feasts of Stone to strengthen their shells. Being the strongest, they are indisputable rulers.
The shells of their dead – and small allotments of Stone – are passed down to the next caste to gnaw on, allowing them to re-ingest and conserve most of the hardness in them. This process continues down onto the level of peasants, whose soft shells resemble that of wild creatures.
One can achieve a higher social standing by submitting themselves to a test of hardness – if one’s shell is deemed strong enough, they are accepted without fail into the next highest caste. This process is very slow and incremental, however, as there is a long, senseless chain of castes.
Names only increase in length with the addition of honorifics – though untranslated here, after a certain point generic titles such as “Master” are used in place of the full name.
The Ckck rely on their sense of touch – antennae and attunement to currents – much more than their sight, but can see shapes a short distance in front of them. For detail, they rely on their sensitive mouthparts to read carvings and inscriptions.
Tools are often chewed into shape from hard rocks or, for crafts and disposable objects, various shells. Nets and other soft goods are tied together from braided filaments of tendon from prey fish.
The speaking circle exists to enable Ckck to differentiate each other in conversation, as they look – and sound – all but identical. Violation of the speaking order is punishable with severe abuse and starvation.
Most architecture is either carved from hard rock or coral, or assembled from loose rocks until a structure can withstand “storms” of underwater currents.
The Ckck may live on a distant, dark-watered world, or in the undiscovered depths of Earth’s oceans. Up in the air at this point.