Sword of the Stars - GURPS
The Tarkas are a reptilian species, but they are as far removed from their lizard-like ancestors as humans are from the tree shrews from which they evolved. The Tarka culture is very ancient and has been remarkably stable in the long term, allowing for hundreds of thousands of years of recorded history and over seven hundred years as a space-faring race.
The Tarka first evolved in a dense arboreal environment, and have retained many features that are associated with tree-dwelling species. They can live in a variety of gravities and temperature zones, but they prefer warmer worlds for their large colonies. They have sustained thousands of acres of Old Growth forests on their home world. A symbiotic relationship with these colossal Tarkasian ironwood trees is part of the traditional way of life for thousands of rural Tarka.
Tarkas have a coat of scales over their bodies, the patterns and thickness of which vary with the individual. Males have thicker and tougher scales than females, especially as they grow older. Tarkas also have three sets of eyelids and claw-like nails on both fingers and feet, which can become quite thick and sharp if they are allowed to grow. Tarkas have five digits and an opposable thumb on their hands, and their feet are also prehensile. Their tails are muscular, shorter in the male than the female, and capable of manipulating objects and striking with significant force. It is standard practice for a Tarkasian martial artist to use his or her tail in combat.
Internally, Tarka are very different from anything seen in the reptile species of Earth. They have a very large and complex brain, warm blood and an advanced circulatory system. A Tarka’s heart has five chambers: four are engaged in standard respiration, and one is activated by the Tarka’s adrenal system. This auxiliary chamber rapidly flutters when a Tarka’s fight-or-flight reflexes are engaged, pumping a complex stew of chemicals and stimulants into the bloodstream. These act on all aspects of Tarka physiology, doubling or trebling the speed at which nervous impulses are transmitted, greatly dampening the feedback associated with pain or injury, profoundly affecting brain function, and flooding the body with blood and hormones. The resulting battle fury is legendary, and renders an adult Tarka extremely dangerous when “the little drum is beating”.
Tarkas are omnivorous, able to consume and digest a wide variety of plant and animal foodstuffs. They enjoy a natural lifespan of about 100 years, barring injury or disease. Tarkas have two genders and a standard mode of sexual reproduction. An adult female Tarka produces an unfertilized proto-egg within her body at standard intervals, and if this egg is not fertilized by a male, it passes from her body and she disposes of it. Fertilization of Tarka eggs occurs in utero, and once fertilized the egg will remain within its mother’s body for several weeks, forming an extremely dense mass of compressed nutrients and a tough, thick leathery outer skin. Thereafter, the egg passes from the female’s body and begins an independent cycle of growth. If tended properly, the infant will hatch from its egg in approximately 18-24 months.
Tarka females average 120-180 centimeters in height and weigh from 60-100 kilograms. They reach their full adult size within 20 years of hatching and maintain roughly the same dimensions throughout their lives. Tarka males, by contrast, can go through two distinct phases of growth and development: the standard development from egg to adult which their female counterparts undergo, and a second stage of maturity which begins later, triggered by a special dietary regime. Tarkas refer to this secondary growth cycle as “the Change”.
Tarka Males and “The Change”
Not all Tarka males will undergo the Change; in fact, it is estimated that only one in a thousand Tarka males ever reaches this phase of development. When the Change occurs, however, a male Tarka undergoes a profound physical and psychological transformation, which effects every aspect of his life.
The production of sex hormones in his body increases, which causes him to develop a broad spectrum of sexual traits. Firstly, he becomes fertile: although he has been able to perform as a sexual being from early adolescence, it is not until the Change that he begins producing viable sperm and becomes capable of fertilizing an egg. Along with this primary change in his reproductive capacity, he also develops a host of secondary sexual characteristics, which signal his availability to females and enable him to compete vigorously for mates.
His physical size increases enormously; he may grow up to 50 additional centimeters in height and his mass is likely to double—some senior males may weigh in at 200 kilograms or more. His vocal chords thicken and his voice becomes louder, deeper and more resonant. The coloring, arrangement and thickness of his scales will change radically, often forming entirely new marking patterns. His personality is substantially altered as well; in general he becomes much more aggressive, extroverted, ambitious, and prone to intense emotional outbursts and mood swings.
The pheromones that a mature male exudes have a variety of psychological effects on other Tarkas. Younger males, who have not undergone the Change, find their senior counterparts magnetic. They are generally cooperative toward senior males, and easily influenced by their charismatic leadership. By contrast, other senior males are hostile and competitive toward a male of their own stature, reacting automatically to every signal of maturity with anger. The rival’s voice, coloring, bearing and attitudes will be found offensive at an almost cellular level. If the two are brought within range of one another’s pheromonal signatures, this effect increases many-fold. Put two senior males alone into one room and an ugly physical altercation will often result.
Females Tarkas find senior males professionally and sexually attractive, but they do not mirror the docility of their young male counterparts. Culturally speaking, female Tarkas tend to view all male Tarkas, both young and old, with a certain amount of prejudice, regarding them as emotionally unstable and prone to poor judgment. However, the ability of a senior male Tarka to command and control his juniors is often very useful in politics, in the military and in business affairs. Most female Tarkas are inclined to harness and direct this power rather than suppress it.
Tarka society is extremely stratified, with many castes and many tiers of hierarchy in every walk of life. Reproductive viability for Tarka males is a privilege with a high premium, and a prize which many junior males desire. Unfortunately, achieving the Change is often difficult for Tarka males who have not been born into a family with wealth and power. Reproductive viability carries a price, and many females must cooperate in order to raise one male to full maturity. Accordingly, males who cannot buy their way into this favored state must earn it, and are highly motivated to do so through success in their careers.
Male Tarkas are discriminated against in the majority of educated professions, and are unlikely to rise high in any field which does not involve a great deal of creative passion, personal risk, or violence. Although they are not forbidden to become diplomats, scientists, technicians or academics, they are subjected to a great deal of sexual prejudice and it is difficult for them to be taken seriously by their entrenched female counterparts. By contrast, a sizable majority of Tarkas in high-risk physical pursuits are male—common soldiers, firefighters, pilots, spacers, miners, etc.—and the same is true of many creative and artistic fields, where the stereotype of the impassioned male Tarka is not considered a drawback.
“Fatherhood” Among the Tarka
Most Tarka males are not Changed and will never be Changed. They are functional sexually and socially, and can form deep emotional attachments, but they cannot fertilize eggs. But because being Changed is considered the ultimate goal of every male, because it represents a pinnacle of status, achievement, and privilege both social and sexual, Fatherhood is a practically sacred thing to Tarka males. Once a Tarka male undergoes the Change, the honorific Var is attached to his name. There is no direct translation for this term of respect, although “Mister” and “Father” are both equivalent.
Although a coterie of aggressive females does generally surround any Changed male, they will be his handlers rather than a harem of submissive wives. Often at least some members of this controlling group will be his sisters or even his mother and aunts. Think of them as the management entourage that surrounds a heavyweight champion or a rock ‘n’ roll superstar, and you’ll have some idea of the tone of the arrangement. They manage his affairs, control access to him, direct his energies productively, control the blast damage of his passionate outbursts and see that his wants and needs are met.
This entourage of females may or may not make use of their Changed male to fertilize their own eggs; more likely they are concerned with arranging his rendezvous with other females, and directing his charismatic presence to everyone’s advantage.
Most Tarka females will never willingly share quarters for a prolonged period with a Changed male. They are not considered desirable roommates or marital partners—they are too unstable and can become downright physically dangerous during a fit of temper. Most Tarka females also try to maintain as much distance as possible between Changed males and very young children. Audiences with Father are rare and usually very controlled and formal.
“Motherhood” Among the Tarka
Tarka females tend to regard males and their near-obsessive desire to become Fathers with affectionate bemusement. Most Tarka females are much more career and advancement-oriented than the average Human female, and can take or leave motherhood in general. They are not biologically designed, as Human females are, to form an intimate pair bond with their offspring. Although their eggs must be tended and their children nurtured and taught, these tasks are generally more communal than personally intimate.
A Tarka female who has not produced an offspring will not generally feel as if there is something “missing” from her life, or feel the perverse urge to “settle down and have a family”, giving up her professional agenda to do so. Hatching a fertile egg will always be a part of her plan, rather than a derailment of her plan, and she will choose to create a child when she is professionally and financially ready to do so.
A Tarka mother takes a great deal of interest in her offspring, and a Tarka father typically very little, unless one looks at the very top rungs of the Kona caste and the bottom rungs of the working class. At the bottom levels of Tarkasian society, it is still common, as in ancient times, for a single Tarka patriarch to live communally with up to 30 other Tarka as a family. All offspring present in the family ko’ will likely be his own.
At the top levels of Tarkasian society, an Emperor or a Supreme Commander must keep an eye on the children he sires of both sexes, or they’ll have a tendency to raise an army and cut his throat. Between these two poles, the majority of Tarka live in groups of ten or more adults, and four to ten children. A Tarka child’s name is based on the clan and rank of his mother. The clan name is given last.
Birth Among the Tarka
Tarkas are oviparous creatures. Under normal conditions, an adult female Tarka produces an unfertilized proto-egg within her body at standard intervals, and if this egg is not fertilized by a male, it passes from her body and she disposes of it. Fertilization of Tarka eggs occurs in utero, and once fertilized the egg will remain within its mother’s body for several weeks, forming an extremely dense mass of compressed nutrients and a tough, thick leathery outer skin. Thereafter, the egg passes from the female’s body and begins an independent cycle of growth. If tended properly, the infant will hatch from its egg in approximately 18-24 months.
Tarkas remain in the egg phase of development for a long time. The infant Tarka gestates within a protective shell for a period of almost two years between fertilization and hatching. During a substantial portion of this gestation period, the Tarka infant within the egg is self-aware and alert to its environment, responsive to stimuli and communicative with the outside world.
Because the Tarka infant is sensitive and aware during this prolonged period of confinement, the care and stimulation of egg-bound Tarka is considered very important. Accordingly, incubation academies and ovatariums are a long-standing tradition in Tarka society. Most fertilized eggs are handed over to an ovatarium within a few weeks of laying.
Childhood Among the Tarka
The regimen provided by any given ovatarium will vary according to the professional and caste affiliations of the parents, as well as their financial and social positions. Certain prestigious “incubation academies” are reserved for the eggs of the highest-ranking and wealthiest Tarkas, while others are considered very desirable for those with military service, academic excellence or artistic achievement in their futures. There are often long waiting lists for the most exclusive ovatariums, and many secondary education programs will not accept candidates who have not been gestated in an ovatarium of the appropriate standing.
In any ovatarium, trained professionals attend to the physical needs of the egg, turning it often and maintaining the proper course of heat and light. The developing hatchling is also provided with a great deal of intellectual and social stimulation, however. Tarka hatchlings are able to perceive light and movement through the shell casing, which becomes increasingly translucent as they grow, and they can also hear a full range of sounds.
Primary education during the egg phase includes a wide variety of interactive games, songs, stories, conversations and exercises, with developing eggs in contact both with their adult caregivers and with other infants in nearby eggs. Occasional visits by the parents are usually encouraged, and the parents return to claim their offspring during the Hatching Ceremony, a ritualized “graduation” event which marks the Tarka’s emergence into the world and his or her exit from the safety and security of the egg.
Although they cannot respond verbally to their care-givers during gestation, most Tarka hatchlings respond to stimuli by knocking on the shell from within. Ovatarium workers throughout history have taught infant Tarkas to use this form of communication, and over many thousands of years this Morse-like “Egg Knock” code has become a language in and of itself.
The Egg Knock Code is the only language which is universal to all Tarkas, who otherwise speak a wide variety of planetary, regional and caste dialects as adults. Accordingly, the EKC is commonly used in the faster-than-light communications throughout the Tarkasian Empire, as it contains a vocabulary of approximately 4,000 words and can be roughly understood and translated by every member of the species.
History and Culture of the Tarka
Tarka civilization is marked by rates of social and political change which are extremely slow by the standards of many other sentient species. The Tarka have been fully sentient and largely stable in their current physiological form for a million years. But Tarka civilization as a whole did not transcend the level of simple, semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer bands for the first 500,000 years of their prehistory.
Their agricultural revolution was not a “revolution” at all, but a slow process of adaptation which took place over thousands of years, producing an incredible variety of social adaptations to the landscape. Even when they finally achieved metallurgy and urban centers, their civilizations continued to rise and fall for thousands upon thousands of years within a relatively narrow band of overall socio-cultural stability. Very often they would not reach an appreciably higher level of social complexity in any given the cycle for quite some time. Change has been more rapid in the last 50,000 years or so, and has been accelerating for the last 3,000 years, but it should still be taken as a given that the overall tendency of the Tarka race is conservative.
Tarkasian civilization is splintered into countless hierarchies, each with its own chain from highest to lowest. In general, the broadest divisions of Tarka society are those of caste, followed by those of clan and family.
There are three traditional castes in Tarka society, and these three castes have been kept separate for long enough to begin the formation of some sub-species traits. The military and professional castes are the Urduku, the Common Folk, and serve as a middle class in Tarkasian society. Alien races typically encounter the Tarkasian military and its Empire long before coming into contact with the Tarkasian civilian castes and any other aspect of traditional Tarkasian culture. The language of the military and of the Empire is called Urdu Kai, “Fleet Speech”.
By far the largest and most varied group are the so-called Gutter Castes, the common people who practice the vast majority of trades and represent over seventy percent of the Tarka general population. There are thirteen languages spoken by the Gutter Castes, but these are all members of a single language family which has diversified in different regions of the Tarka homeworld, and on different colonies.
The smallest group among the Tarka castes is the Kona, the Exalted Ones, said to be descended from the gods. Kona are the traditional royal families of the nine continents of Kao’Kuuma, the Tarka homeworld. Members of the Kona caste are adapted for life at higher elevations than common Tarka, and have slightly different physiology and metabolism than Urduku and Gutter Tarka. They tend to be physically smaller, especially the females, and of all Tarka they are the only caste which suffers deleterious side effects from inbreeding. Traditional Kona have a relatively small range of scale colors and patterns. The families of the Nine Emperors are all named for the dominant color of their scales.
Clans among the Tarka are groups of allied families which are united by caste, language, geography, or common social and economic interests. As an example, there are over a hundred traditional clans within the military caste. Some military clans traditionally serve as soldiers, while others are traditionally police or personal security guards.
Families bound by clan ties cooperate with one another in order to strengthen their position in negotiation, provide mutual support and defense in times of crisis, pursue common goals and secure needed services to all members, including health care, child-rearing and higher education, personal and business loans, and pensions. There are very few social bonds among Humans which operate in this way, but labor unions probably provide the closest analogy.
There are countless different Tarka clans. Tarka clan names, like many Human family names, tend to be based on ancestral occupation, even when the clan has diversified its economic interests. The clan name “Gulto” has the same meaning as the human name “Cooper”—“one who creates casks and barrels”—but the modern Gulto clan has a number of economic holdings, including breweries, wineries and bottling plants, as well as import and export businesses to distribute spirits and beverages throughout the empire.
The clan name “Orr” has the same meaning as the human name “smith”—“one who works in refining and shaping metal”. The Orr are one of the oldest traditional clans still extant among modern Tarka, and they have worked for thousands of years mining and refining metals. The most powerful branch of the modern Orr clan are steel-workers, the owners and operators of some of the first factories in the Tarka industrial age.
The most common Tarka family dynamic is a group marriage arrangement—the closest human historical equivalent might be the group marriages of the Spartans. A tightly-knit group of females and unChanged males will join together to form a bonded social and sexual partnership. This group may or may not incorporate a Changed male at its apex.
All members of a Tarka family live together semi-communally in one or more dwellings which are owned in common. The living space owned by a single family is called a ’ko—the word has many meanings in English, from “home” to “castle” or “palisade”.
Tarka families share expenses, home maintenance and meals, and often work together professionally. They support one another in their ambitions and efforts, and it is in this setting that most growing Tarka children would feel a sense of “family” as we know it. Rather than being raised by father and mother exclusively as in Human and Liir families, Tarka children have a mother and a group of loving “uncles” and “aunties”, as well as “sisters” and “brothers”. An “Uncle” is any male member of the family group who is adult and responsible for the well-being of the children, while an “Auntie” is the analogous female—there is no necessary blood relationship between the child and its Uncles and Aunties. The same is true of “sisters” and “brothers”, who are simply the child’s peers in age.
The family protects all its children equally, disciplines them, shows them love and affection, funds their education. Children return to the same family home throughout their lives, unless they choose to join another family as adults.
It must be noted that a family dynamic sometimes springs up aboard smaller ships in the Tarka navy, as the crew may become deeply bonded by their combat experiences. It is something the High Command discourages by regulations, but does not stamp out in practice.
Religion Among the Tarka
The Tarkas are a polytheistic society. Most Tarkas are aware of a basic theological framework which might include hundreds of different deities, all of which could have some relation to one another in the over-arching scheme of things. What that relationship might be depends on which temple’s priest you are speaking to.
No individual Tarka will even attempt to worship or “believe in” all of the thousands of Tarkasian gods in the pantheon at once. They simply maintain a personal relationship with the patron gods and goddesses of their own clan, caste and profession, and take an interest in the myth cycle of whatever legendary hero might be relevant to their own ambitions.
Like the ancient Greeks and Egyptians among Humans, some Tarkas do indulge in monotheism, and declare one god to exist while all others do not. Tarkas also indulge in personal philosophies which deny the existence of all gods, but still offer a formula for leading a virtuous life (the latter is commonly adopted by scientists and engineers).
Overall, levels of religious faith vary, but fanaticism of any kind is extremely rare among the Tarka. There simply isn’t room for it in their culture. Religious tolerance is part of the ingrained hierarchical framework of Tarka society, and differing beliefs are expected in Tarkas from different regions and different walks of life. The fact that someone else disdains your chosen temple is not considered a threat to your own worldview. Indeed, it would be considered very strange for a Tarka to want to “convert” another Tarka to his or her religion, or draw him/her to the patronage of new gods, unless the converted Tarka was also being made a member of the caste, clan and profession to whom that god is appropriate.
As a side note, most Tarkas do not regard religion as an adequate reason for acts of violence. Members of the Tarka warrior castes are mystified by the idea that religion could serve as a justification for war. Any attempt to explain the notion of religous warfare among humans is usually met with incredulous laughter: “You would die over THAT!?”
The only exception to this rule is the historical attitudes toward “witches”—those Tarka in possession of psionic abilities. Tarkasian society is extremely intolerant toward witchcraft, and in times past there were countless genocidal purges directed against known witches and their clans.
There are stories of very powerful witches in Tarka legend, but these are all apocryphal and shrouded in myth. If we posit some basis for these legends in fact, we can make some broad guesses about how Tarkasian Psionic abilities might have functioned in the past.
Among the Tarka, “witchcraft” was apparently gestalt-based, with one or two individuals directing forces or energies gathered by a larger group. The stereotypical Tarka possessing Psionic ability was the “Witch Lord”, or “Witch Queen”, the leader of a “Witch Clan”. The Witch Clan appears to have been some sort of coven, a group of linked Tarka who could provide resources and power to fuel the leader’s deviltry.
By communion with this support base, the Witch Lord was able to perform miraculous feats: levitation/flight, seeing into the future, entering the dreams of sleeping persons or causing hallucinations in those waking, healing the sick or causing sickness to fall upon people and their animals, communicating with the dead, the gods, or the spirits, wielding supernatural speed or strength, etc..
How much of this may have been real and how much is mystical/superstitious embroidery long after the fact is unknown. The majority of Tarkasian witch legends tend to focus on the negative. It has been centuries since the majority of Tarka have believed that witches exist at all. Nonetheless, their iconographic representations and modern use of language show that they still regard witches as harbingers of plague, madness, and doom. One of the hateful epithets leveled by racist Tarka against the Liir, for example, is “Witch Whales”.
Only the very oldest stories and the most primitive societies retain any variant of the tales which focus on positive acts or ethical use of power.