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Eightball Puppeteer

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.

 

Forest Terrain   Eightball
Qty Animal Mass (kg) Hits Armor Wounds and Weapons      
1 Puppeteer (carnivore siren) 70 14/5 Jack Spiny Tentacles (Claws) 1D6+special
Mandibles (Teeth+1) 2D6+1
A(Surprise; see text) F(Surprised; see text) S1

The Puppeteer, whose scientific name (insidator horrificus) means “Lurking Horror”, is a large ambush predator found on the dark world of Eightball. The animal is solitary, territorial, and scientists are split about its level of intelligence but no one can deny it is extremely curious, cunning, and highly dangerous to stumble upon one while it is lurking in its burrow or creeping about the dark forests.

The Puppeteer is a warm-blooded animal with reptilian characteristics (scales, R-strategy egg-layer) and mammalian characteristics (warm blooded, high metabolism), but it is not classifiable as either. Nor is it a monotreme or mammal-like reptile. It even has arthropod and cephalopod characteristics. The animal has both an internal skeleton and external cuticle layer where it is not scaled or covered with a leathery hide. It is truly alien and highly advanced for its evolutionary development.

A Puppeteer is a long (2m average, but some have reached 3m), bilaterally symmetrical animal with what appear to be (but not actually, only in appearance) three segments. The head is spherical and has two pairs of 1.2-1.5m spined tentacles on either side at the edges of the mouthparts. The mouth is jawed, but with the addition of two pairs of jointed mandibles, resembling large chelicerae similar to those found on some arthropods. Four protruding, globular black complex eyes are stacked in two pairs above the mouth and situated for excellent vision forward and above the animal. Ears are present on either side of the head behind the tentacle base, well protected under a thin but tough layer of membrane. Overall, the head is covered by a smooth layer of leathery dermis colored tan with brown and black banding.

The head swivels around on a gristly base of heavy muscled neck protected by a ring of dark cuticle layers. The neck is more flexible than it appears and allows the animal to bite down on a prey animal that might thrash around and otherwise strain the Puppeteer’s neck enough to cause it to have to either leave its burrow or release the prey without having to do either. It cannot survive a full 360-degree twisting, but it can come close to that .

Around the base of the neck, there is a fleshy collar that wraps around the back of the neck and provides a sheath for the two dozen fine fronds that the animal extends or retracts to both sample and expel scent in the air. The fronds can retract to about .5m and extend as far as 1.2m. They are very thin, yet tough and flexible enough to resist damage. The very tips are brightly bioluminescent and range from yellow to yellow-green.

Behind the head and neck is the second “segment”: this contains the vital organs and is sheathed in a thick cuticle layer for protection. Puppeteers breathe with lungs and make a wide range of vocalizations, both for communication with other Puppeteers, and for mimicking prey animals. This section has two pairs of legs for locomotion that have the same leathery hide that the head does. Each thick, heavily muscled leg ends in a sharp bony spur that serves as a foot. The Puppeteer uses these legs for movement and digging, plus, by sinking the sharp foot into the soil around it the animal can resist being pulled from its burrow. The midsection is a darker tan color with black banding.

The last section is a long, fat, cylindrical tail that tapers to a blunt tip. Large amounts of fats are stored here and used for surviving the planet’s period of bright sunlight when the Puppeteer buries itself in its burrow and hibernates. The tail is strong but not used as a weapon. When the animal moves along the surface the tail is dragged along behind it, protected by fine scales along the upper half, and wide, smooth ones with a thicker cuticle below.

To understand and appreciate the Puppeteer one must also take into account the unique environment of the world it evolved on and the biome it lives in.

Eightball

Eightball (E787100-0) is so named for having a north polar cap that is the only readily seen feature on an otherwise dark gray world when approached in space. For most of the year, the dense atmosphere hides the two major landmasses. The average temperature is 21C, though the high humidity makes it seem much higher. Violent storms frequent the vast oceans and impressive lightning storms rage over the northern, larger landmass’ mountainous north region. The heavy, damp heat is relieved during half of the planet’s 300-day year by rains ranging from monsoon to a steady, warm drizzle.

Because of the dense atmosphere and near-continuous cloud cover, the level of light during the daytime hours (averaging 10) is the equivalent of the urban limit of twilight (3-4 Lux), while the night hours (averaging 12) are so dark that it has been described as having substance. There is a brief period of the year, between the wet and less-wet periods, when the daytime light reaches as much as 40 Lux for 90 days. During this time, there is explosive growth among the flowering plants and most of the animal life seeks shelter by hibernating or only moving about in the night even if of an otherwise diurnal habit. Molds and fungi of all types abound on Eightball, and the oceans have vast mats of mosses covered in various molds, and fungus clusters like islands drift across the surface.

Due to the rapid growth and dense clouds of spores, pollen, and seeds expelled by all types of plants during the brightest season of the year, the atmosphere becomes hazardous to breathe unless anti-allergens are taken regularly. Filter masks and respirators are mandatory in addition to the anti-allergens, and the filters must be changed every day. During the rest of the year, anti-allergens are advisable, but masks are not needed.

Predation and Survival

Because of the near year-round level of darkness on Eightball, the animals have adapted with several strategies for predation, defense, territoriality, and reproduction that are fascinating to researchers. One of the most common adaptations is the use of scent and sound to lure prey, or camouflage intentions. Other forms are bioluminescence of various intensities and enhanced vision. Sometimes several methods are combined for effect as in, for example, the Signalman, an arboreal mammal that emits a blinding flash of luminescence combined with a startling loud croak to stun either an attacking predator or tasty prey. Or the False Martin, a large ambush carnivore that only has bioluminescent patterns on its face that mimic the overall body patterns of the female Red Martin in estrus (a 20kg ungulate), allowing the predator to hide along trails with only its face poking through the brush to attract males Martins looking to mate, which it then engulfs and eats with its gaping jaws. Others mimic the glowing fungi and plants they live among for camouflage.

The Puppeteer uses vocalizations, scent, and bioluminescence making it one of the most adaptable, successful, and disturbing predators on Eightball.

The Puppeteer lives in a burrow it digs vertically into the soil, usually near the base of large trees – it is believed that this provides protection from any predator that would try to attack the Puppeteer from the rear. The animal coils its tail at the bottom of the burrow, jams its spiked feet into the sides of the burrow, and its head fills the entrance. The animal then extends its scent fronds high into the air above it and emits the odor of the surrounding plants to cover its own scent. This scent varies among Puppeteers based on the local plant life so the theory is that the animal eats the plants when young and so absorbs chemical samples in the same way as with its kills.

The Puppeteer lures, by using vocalizations mimicking distress or comfort sounds made by local prey, animals that live in the area while keeping all but its top set of eyes below the rim of the burrow. If no large animal comes near, the Puppeteer will not starve since the trees it makes its burrows near also usually have the ubiquitous Leaper-Creepers living in them. These arboreal, hopping mammalian insectivores (about the size of a rabbit) will often be fooled by the bright tips of the Puppeteer’s scent fronds and leap at them thinking they are a swarm of insects. The Puppeteer will snatch the Leaper-Creepers out of the air as they fly by and eat them as the time passes, while waiting for larger prey.

When a large prey animal, or even an opportunistic predator, comes near looking for the source of the mimicked sounds, the Puppeteer will lunge out of its hole and capture the animal with its tentacles, pulling the prey closer to the crushing, slashing mandibles. The Puppeteer will bite down on the prey and hold it down until the prey dies of suffocation if it was not killed outright in the violent attack. The Puppeteer will not completely leave its burrow to pursue prey, since not only will this make it vulnerable to attack, but Puppeteers cannot run any faster than a human can for more than a few meters, and definitely not when dragging a prey animal in its jaws. Since the Puppeteer cannot risk some larger predator being nearby (a frequent case in some parts of the lands they live in) the animal will never leave its burrow to attack.

Puppeteers do sometimes wander about in the times of total darkness when it rains to avoid a flooding burrow, and dig up the burrows of small animals for food, and shelter under the massive root bundles of some trees. Researchers have told of hair-raising encounters with Puppeteers during these rainy seasons when the animals have found their way into tents and portable shelters, having manipulated the flap tie-downs and latches. A few cases resulted in the death of the researcher, but most merely woke to see the Puppeteer’s shining eyes staring at them surrounded by the bright tips of the scent fronds.
If the Puppeteer has made a kill, it consumes the prey, hollowing out the carcass. The Puppeteer then pushes the top of its head into the carcass and lifts it over the burrow entrance so it can see out of the former prey’s torso through slashes made during feeding. The Puppeteer uses its tentacles to move the head and body around a little while it also mimics the prey’s sounds of distress or comfort noises. Since the prey is usually a social herd animal this almost always entices another one to come close out of curiosity or social instinct. The Puppeteer may also enhance the effect further by exuding pheromones or scents sampled from the prey when it was eaten, many of which are used as sexual attractants by the prey animal.

Sometimes this will also attract opportunistic predators, particularly since the scent of blood and organs accompanies the kill. Puppeteers are not choosey eaters, so if the predator is of a size that the Puppeteer can kill, the Puppeteer will do so and happily eat it. Puppeteers have been observed to kill predators half again their size.

After two or three kills, the Puppeteer will abandon its burrow and take up residence in one of several it has dug out around its territory. Scavengers will eventually dispose of the remains of kills left behind and the Puppeteer will return to a cleaned hunting area later. Puppeteers, while not social, can sometimes be found clustered near each other in especially rich feeding grounds. They will tolerate each other so long as they each keep to their own particular burrows. If prey is scarce, smaller Puppeteers may be attacked in their burrows by larger ones, who then eat them with as much relish as anything else they consume.

Puppeteers are hermaphroditic and mate once every two years. Two Puppeteers will perform a pattern of ritualized behavior involving tentacle waving and screeching vocalizations, then each will slip a “packet” of sperm encased in mucus webbing into a receptor duct behind the head with a tentacle. After this, the two will proceed on their mutual ways while making low grunting croaks until well away from each other. The entire process takes about half an hour.

The sperm is stored for up to two years and the Puppeteer will fertilize and lay 30-60 eggs once every 6 months. The eggs are buried in shallow holes dug by the adult and then left to hatch on their own about 4 days later. The young Puppeteers emit a pheromone that discourages adults from eating them, but a few predators will home in on the odor to consume the fully formed juveniles. Out of an average of 40 eggs, five hatchlings will survive to reach adulthood in eight months. The lifespan potential is up to 30 years for a Puppeteer, but few live for more than 5 or 6 years in the wild, since competition among large predator species on Eightball is fierce.

Puppeteer Intelligence

Puppeteers are considered by some to be at least semi-intelligent and on a level with a human 8-year old in terms of puzzle solving and manipulation of complex objects. In the wilds, Puppeteers have been observed using rocks and wood as tools for digging out and killing prey found in the giant root tangles at the bases of many of the trees they live near. While chasing the prey out of the hiding places with one or two tentacles, the other tentacles would hold rocks or sharp sticks to impale or smash the prey trying to escape, allowing the Puppeteer to kill more prey than it otherwise would if it reached in a dragged them out. Puppeteers will puzzle out latching and locking mechanisms on shelters and of their enclosures when in captivity.

Puppeteers will use sharp and levering tools, and will test several newly encountered items against the known suitability of the currently used tool. If a superior one (sharper, lighter but works as well…) is found, the Puppeteer will swap tools.

While they do not appear to have any language, Puppeteers can mimic the voices of researchers that sound amazingly accurate when the animals have only heard them once or twice. They do not construct sentences or anything like that, but by motions with their tentacles combined with mimicked words that they have seen connected to something they want (such as a prey item) Puppeteers have been able to make some very basic communication with their keepers. No creative processes have been observed, though the animals are highly curious, often manipulating and staring at some complex item given to them by keepers. Puppeteers are, however, very dangerous and cunning in captivity, and have been known to patiently wait for a chance to attack a keeper it has lulled into thinking the Puppeteer had become tame and docile.

Puppeteer Encounters

If a Puppeteer is encountered, its response will depend on the environment and situation. If the Puppeteer is hunting from its burrow then it will always attack if the person is close enough (about a 3m “lunge limit”) and it has surprise on its side. The Puppeteer will consider surprise valid if the person approaches within the lunge limit and has not shown himself to be a threat by attacking the Puppeteer.

If the Puppeteer is out of its burrow and moving about in the rainy season it will flee if surprised, and attack if it feels cornered and cannot at least protect its tail under something. The same response happens when encountering one in a shelter or in captivity if the Puppeteer is surprised. They have been known to use air ducts and access ways as burrows if the opening is at floor level. In such cases, the Puppeteer will not attack outside its lunge limit but will back into the duct to protect its hindquarters while seeking a way to escape.

Encountering a Puppeteer out of its burrow when it is hunting and has surprise on its side (as in the earlier mentioned shelter or tent examples) will find the Puppeteer on the attack more often than not. Sometimes, rarely, the animal seems to be merely curious and will not attack so long as no sudden or threatening moves are made but one never knows what is in the animal’s mind.

When attacking the Puppeteer will lash out with its tentacles and attempt to hold the person down so it can bite. It the tentacle attack was successful, the Puppeteer will bite with its mandibles in the same attack. If the tentacle attack failed, the Puppeteer will not bite in the same attack. For it to bite, the Puppeteer has to have successfully attacked with its tentacles.

If the attack fails the Puppeteer will try to escape if an escape route is possible to the rear to the animal. If not it will be considered “cornered” and attack until killed. If it is possible to escape the Puppeteer will try to do so.