Saphirean Running Owl
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue.
|SKILLS||Athletics/Dex-1; Survival-0; Stealth-1; Recon-2|
|ATTACKS||Flees if surprised; attacks on 9+ if has
surprise; else flees 4-, attacks 11+
|TRAITS||Small (-2); Fast metabolism (+2 to initiative); Glider; Camouflage (+2 to spot in native environment); Heightened senses (+1 to Recon and Survival checks)|
|Morphology||Bilateral symmetry, tetrapod (four-limbed), biped (two hind limbs used for locomotion), winged (two winged forelimbs used for gliding)|
|Biochemistry||C/H/O/N, broadly compatible with human|
|Respiration||Oxygen-nitrogen inhalant, Carbon dioxide exhalant|
|Ecology||Diurnal (active during twilight and night)|
|Habitat||Steppes, light forests|
|Diet and Trophics||Carnivore/pouncer, homeothermic (keeping a constant body temperature)|
|Reproduction||Two genders, moderate sexual dimorphism, conjugal intercourse, viviparous birth (giving birth to live young), iteroparous (reproducing more than once in a lifetime). Progeny are cared for by a mated pair for about a standard year.|
|Lifecycle and ontogeny||One year to sexual maturity. Lifespan of about eight years in the wild, up to thirty years in captivity.|
When asked what they know about the Saphir system, most citizens of the subsector will cite the spectacular “diadem”, a belt made of chunks of clear frozen volatiles that projects a breathtakingly scintillating corona radiating outward under the constant bombardment of the solar wind from Saphir’s blue-white star, and which can be seen as a brightly shimmering band even in Saphir’s day sky. Some of the more knowledgeable may also mention the planet’s theocratic society where humans rank themselves in castes depending on the depth of their spiritual and religious commitment. Only a few know Saphir as the home planet of the subsector’s (arguably) most popular pet.
The “Running Owl” or “Bearded Owl”, pseudoglaux cursitans, also called by its Bilanidin name shugammu, roams the steppes of Saphir’s purposefully undeveloped second continent Solitude. It is symbolically associated with the hermits and anchorites who undertake the spiritual journey to the barren steppes to meditate and gain enlightenment; a necessary step in one’s curriculum if aspiring to join one of the higher castes.
Running Owls are large, flightless pseudoavians. Their wings are small and can assist only in short hops; their main locomotion is on the ground employing the long, powerful legs. The feet are large and splayed, with three toes aligned forward and to the sides. A single toe curves upward, terminating in a long, vicious, sickle-shaped claw with which the Running Owl strikes down its prey. The animal is capable of short bursts of remarkable speed and quick changes of direction in mid-run, chasing down prey much larger than itself.
The body is shingle-covered with feather-like protrusions that are
very soft and downy on the back but form a hardened layer of keratin
scales around the throat and upper chest. As a mating and territory
call, a Running Owl pride rattle these scales against each other by
rapidly inflating and deflating the throat, making a sound not unlike an
unruly orchestra of Terran maracas. When threatened, the Owl will puff
up its throat area, causing the scales to point outwards like spikes.
The large head looks remarkably like that of a Terrestrial great horned owl, with a short beak and a pronounced facial disc shaped like a radar dish that guides soundwaves towards the ear slits and aids in the creature’s very acute hearing. The feathery “ear tufts” located on the back of the head are mood indicators and not ears as such. Two prehensile feelers protrude from the upper head and are used to sense air pressure differentials. They are often objects of gentle preening by the mated partner.
The lower pair of eyes, fixed forward, are very light sensitive and able to pinpoint even small prey at very long distances in near pitch darkness. The upper eyes, set in the forehead, lack focus and are only capable of detecting general colour and movement. In concert with the feelers, they are a warning system alerting the Owl to stalkers that try to blindside it while its attention is fixed on its prey.
Running Owls hunt in packs or “prides” of up to fifteen creatures each. (Solomani taxonomists like to use the term “parliaments” instead due to the creatures’ resemblance to owls.) The strongest mated pair leads the pride, with other pairs following. Pairs bond for life following a period of wooing consisting of displays of fluffed-up plumage and loud hissing. The rank within the pride is determined by fights between the males, with their mated females often joining in. Once per Saphirean year (521.6 standard days), the female gives birth to a litter of two to four young.
A pride of Running Owls uses clever tactics when hunting prey. Scientists compare their intelligence to Terrestrial corvids; some Running Owls have been seen to use sticks to dig for insect larvae or construct shelters or camouflage out of woven twigs. In captivity, Running Owls can be taught to follow commands, solve simple puzzles and do all sorts of tricks.
Captive Owls make good pets (and are popular throughout the subsector). They tend to be skittish due to their very sensitive ears; loud or sudden noises frighten and anger them, and they seem to be very reactive to the mood of humans around them. Their eyes need to be fitted with polarised goggles during the day. Most people who keep one regularly also file or pare down the claws to avoid injury, although even wild Owls seem not to mind humans overmuch and rarely attack unless one approaches their young. In captivity, the creatures often become very affectionate, and some may completely refuse to be parted from their owners.
- A passenger aboard the travellers’ ship brought xir pet, a large Running Owl. The poor thing is frightened and angered by the continuous sound of the ship’s life support system, and lashes out blindly with its claws. After putting the owner in the sick bay with an ugly slash wound on xir arm, the travellers need to subdue the Owl – and it perches in the corridor right in front of the ship’s locker where all the weapons are.
- A high-ranking Incandescent (high-caste) Saphirean befriended a Running Owl during xir tenure as a hermit on the Solitude continent. Xe has grown very fond of the animal and secretly wants to keep contact with it. Unfortunately, since the Owl is a carnivore, and eating meat or being in the presence of someone eating meat is forbidden to the higher ranks, xe needs someone to feed the creature, buying meat from the out-caste Lemureans and getting it to the compound where it is kept. The job is rather simple, but is made difficult by the fact that the travellers have no direct contact with their employer. Saphireans, by custom, minimise contact with everyone not of their own caste or the caste one tier down, to avoid spiritual pollution: The Incandescent would contact a Luminary, who would instruct an Ordinary, who would instruct an Ascendant, who would instruct an Aspirant, who would instruct a Vagrant, who is finally low enough on the social and spiritual ladder and has enough freedom to associate with meat-eating, weapon-carrying, flirtatious, swearword-using unbelievers like the travellers. Likewise, any report they make has to travel up the ladder until it reaches the Incandescent’s ears.
- As 2), but the Luminary-caste middleman plans an intrigue against the Incandescent (revealing a mindset unworthy of his spiritual high rank; if it became known he would be “caste-cropped” down to Ascendant-caste or lower, where such pandering to personal ambition is at least tolerated). Xe will twist the orders from the Incandescent and the travellers’ reports, will try to move high-caste persons to where they “inadvertently” witness the travellers bloodying their hands and souls with dead animal meat, and get the travellers to let slip publicly on whose orders they act. Of course, xe also has to rely on middlemen, so the whole intrigue takes on a truly Byzantine intricacy.
- A Contact asks the travellers a favour. Xe has to travel to a neighbouring planet, and quarantine regulations forbid xir to take xir Running Owl pet with xir. Could the travellers babysit the Owl while their Contact makes the trip? It’s only for three weeks, and xe will be forever grateful. Unfortunately, the pet is not only squeamish with its food and surroundings, but also distraught at being parted from its master. And a distraught and bored Owl may start attacking furniture, slashing cables, or deciding to go for a long walk in search of xir.
- As 4), but their Contact goes missing. The Owl, with its keen senses, might be able to find xir – so the travellers need to smuggle it through quarantine onto the planet’s surface and conceal it while they go searching for their Contact.
- The travellers are hired as smugglers to a low-technology planet. Unfortunately, the job is not as piece-of-cake as it seems. The backwater planet may not be able to afford high-tech densitometers for its customs service, but they employ Running Owls instead. With their ability to sense pressure differentials, they are able to find the secret storage areas on the travellers’ smuggler ship. Someone needs to distract the creatures without the customs officials noticing.
- On a rural planet, escaped Running Owl pets have “gone wild” and become a plague on the outlying ranching communities. Every night, cattle and springers are getting mauled. The government has put a bounty on Owl heads. There has even been a large-scale military action by imported mercenary units against the creatures, which resulted in little but a lot of wasted ammunition (much like the Great Emu War of Terra’s Australian continent). Now the travellers are hired to test out sonic barriers to keep the creatures away. They find out the hard way that the same frequencies that drive off Owls also attract huge armies of a ravenous locust-like arthropod species. And then they have to dive back into the swarm, armed with vacc suits, shotguns and insecticide sprayers, to turn off the sonic emitters again – which are now in the center of a huge cloud of biting, stinging, buzzing critters.
- A resident of one of the urban areas surrounding the downport was walking xir Running Owl pet, and it was attacked by a small local creature. Several days later, xe was attacked by xir own pet, which seemed to be in a killing frenzy. A few days later, more such cases crop up all across the city. A rabies-like disease seems to have jumped the species gap and infected the Owls, turning them into killers. Now everyone who keeps a Running Owl as a pet is in danger… and according to last year’s census, that’s nearly half the planet’s population. Meanwhile, the port’s extrality line is closed, a quarantine curfew is enforced, and armed Marines patrol the perimeter. The travellers need to sneak across the line to finish their job / meet their patron / collect crewmembers out slumming. While avoiding getting slashed and bitten by the rabid Owls that roam the back alleys at night.
- As 8), but the travellers are hired to smuggle persons or goods across the extrality line.
- As 8), but the disease was engineered by terrorists who use the panic to overthrow the local government / take hostages / commit random acts of violence.
- As 10), but the travellers are hired to get a vaccine or a qualified team of veterinarians and biologists from a planet in the vicinity. The terrorists try to hinder their efforts; first by ambushing them at the jump point with a corsair ship, then by activating their cell at the destination planet. They have subverted a few minor officials there, who might throw a few wrenches in the travellers’ plans. If that does not stop them, as a last-ditch measure a group of fanatics will be there to try and take them (or their ship) out of the action with suicide bombings.
- The travellers are traversing the steppes accompanied by their pet (or an alien of diminutive stature). Unfortunately, a pride of feral Running Owls has decided that this specimen looks really tasty. They patiently shadow the travellers’ party the whole way, laying complex ambushes and trying to get their claws on that delectable morsel. They are very adept at hiding, but alert travellers may note they are being stalked.