by Chris Wayan, 2006
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Cheetaurs are gracile, long-legged centauroids, with feline faces, pelts and tails. Not quite so feline are their stubby but clever forehands--three fingers and an opposable thumb. Wingless in a world of fliers, cheetaurs were successful hunters of small game out on the veldt by virtue of their sheer speed, and, later, accuracy in throwing. Still, their catlike appearance is a bit deceptive: they stayed omnivores, not pure carnivores like Terran cats, for even in ancient times, those high-placed heads and forehands anchored on upright shoulders were as ideal for fruit- and leaf-harvesting as they were for game-spotting and rock-tossing. Advances in tools broadened their diet further. Spears soon became digging sticks and hoes. Small irrigated village gardens became common; roots and starchy stalks joined fruit and greens as cheetaur staples. Trade with winged species brought more domestic plants and animals; today, there are even vegetarian cheetaurs, though they require a high-protein diet involving domesticated lizard eggs and "dairy" products from creatures called milk-monkeys.
Cheetaurs vary greatly. Pelts range from thick and fluffy to quite short, and from spots to stripes to plain. A much stockier, more leopard-like subspecies lives on Erkila; the hot plains of Larsum have extremely gracile runners. Indeed, cheetaurs are one of the most variable races on Lyr, and not by chance. Unlike other Lyrans, cheetaurs' flightlessness limits travel, fostering genetic drift. Many groups are descended from a single boat of settlers. They aren't culturally isolated--cheetaurs are linked to the greater Lyran community by fliers of other species. But not being cheetaurs, winged visitors can't add genes to the local population (not, in the case of lebbirds, for lack of trying--they find cheetaurs irresistable). The result: cheetaur tribes vary nearly as much as humans, though culturally they're far more unified.
Lyr has several intelligent species with catlike features--cheetaurs, lebbirds, sphinxes, icari and gryphons. But the similarities are entirely due to evolutionary convergence; the five species are completely unrelated, simply filling somewhat similar niches. Not identical ones--some of the others are arboreal, some prefer temperate or cold climates... and all the rest fly. Cheetaurs are the odd cat out--the wingless people! It's shaped their minds--though cheetaurs look far less human than, say, icari, Terrans might find their psychology more familiar. Earthy? Dare I say... grounded? Emotionally they resemble bos, another odd-looking but wingless species.
Has walking shaped our minds so much?
Cheetaurs probably evolved on the veldts around the fringe of the Kurro Desert in western Larsum, and slowly spread via rafts along the Polesotechnic Strip. More recently, they've developed seaworthy catamarans and spread around the equatorial zone, following maps acquired from winged acquaintances. By "recently" I mean it took them 12,000 years! It's not stupidity or conservatism--not even that, like many desert cats, they hate to get wet. But warm, dry cheetaur habitat is small and far-scattered in Lyr's maritime climate; and the seas are huge and deep. Cheetaurs swim badly--with heavy (non-hollow!) bones, lots of muscle and little fat, they simply sink in seconds, like gorillas or chimps. Being strong has its disadvantages! Or, to flip it round, human flabbiness is one more piece of evidence in favor of the theory that we're a semi-aquatic beach-combing ape. Fat isn't just food storage or insulation--it also floats!
Though cheetaurs were late to blend into the worldwide community, they're now found in many mixed-species towns, both in grasslands and in warmer woods around Lyr. Suprisingly, perhaps, they get along well with other species. Territorial among their own kind, feeling crowded in more than small groups, they seem to find other species unthreatening--perhaps unconsciously seeing them, not as rivals, but a rich food reserve. If so, it's well-suppressed by cheetaur honor; the only recorded cases of sapiophagy (preying on and eating intelligent beings) involved shipwreck and starvation--and, interestingly, all involve voluntary sacrifices, not predation.
Cheetaurs are an easy-going species; their mood is generally cheerful and practical. They play a lot. But their play is rougher than most Lyrans--without wings, they're more solidly built. Cheetaurs aren't violent, but occasionally hot-tempered; be warned that they claw if teased too far.
They're prone to mystical visions and compelling dreams, which they recall as easily as waking life, and which can be epic in length. This may be due to their sleep cycle--unlike, say, sphinxes, who catnap all day and night, cheetaurs are strongly diurnal, sleeping a full four or five hours uninterrupted each night. It seems to be a single long REM cycle, instead of a series as in humans. Unbroken two-hour REM periods have been observed. Human dreams are like popsongs, cheetaur dreams like Wagnerian operas--in length and complexity at least! For a cheetaur, there are two coherent, alternating worlds, which they spend about the same amount of subjective time in. They lead true double lives, and will speak casually of dream friends, lovers and spouses as real people.
Not all cheetaurs are themselves in their other lives; some change sex and even species, and refer to themselves as, say, bap-cheetaurs or sphinx-cheetaurs. Perhaps it's really their dreamlives that allows them to get along well with other intelligent species: some cheetaurs have been those species.
Cheetaurs are fond of poetry, song, stories, music, dancing, sex--better yet, all of them at once. Sensual, cheetaurs welcome touch, and often engage in casual sex-play, with cheetaurs and others. Some have been known to form dyadic and group-marriages with other cats, and even bos, gryphons, and pegasi.
Though still more lightly built than, say, Terran leopards, at least they aren't hollow-boned like winged Lyrans; thus, cheetaurs have a reputation for great strength, and often work in shipping, trade and construction.
Since these nonfliers can't migrate as readily as most Lyrans, races have differentiated. Two extremes are depicted here: the first illustration was of the smaller, spotted, gracile, cheetah-like race found in the tropical Polesotechnic Strip; just above is the larger, striped, stocky, shaggy, leonine race found in the slightly cooler Hisagazi Islands; they've recently spread to the western Diomedes Cluster. But even the gracile "cheetah" race is stronger than most winged Lyrans.
As I mentioned, both races have solid bones, and so much muscle compared to fat, that they can't float. Yet a minority of cheetaurs are (reluctant) mariners. On their side of the world, beyond the trading zone of the soka, there are no other deepwater sailors--if you want to emigrate, you must sail yourself. Since good cheetaur habitat is rare and scattered across Lyr, cheetaurs have been motivated to learn seafaring, risky though it is for them.
More comfortable underground than any of the flying species, cheetaurs also rival bos as the most advanced miners, smiths and metallurgists on Lyr. Curious as Terran cats, cheetaurs dominate many scientific societies as well.
The last field I'll mention is less self-evident, but it grows logically from their carnivorism. Cheetaurs make superb doctors and surgeons. They lack squeamishness about blood (antels, for example, can't study anatomy, let alone do surgery--their instincts force them to bolt in panic).
Cheetaurs have an acute sense of smell, too. That's natural in a ground-based hunter--but renenber how few of those there are on Lyr! Visually oriented fliers dominate the world's civilization--and many are even less sensitive to scent than humans. So even nervous, high-strung herbivores like antels trust cheetaurs above all other species as diagnosticians--and not just for physical illness. While many of Lyr's species practice forms of shamanism, cheetaur shamans often fill a role close to that of human psychotherapists--but, while they're good listeners, their focus isn't on talk. A good cheetaur shaman can literally sniff out the problem--even purely emotional ones.
Natural herbalists, cheetaurs emphasize pharmacological cures as well as dreamwork. In a neat reversal of Terran priorities, prescription "drugs" of this sort are seen, on Lyr, as alternative medicine, while dream-cures are the conservative mainstream...
But regardless of treatment preferences, everyone wants a cheetaur for diagnosis--to nose out the truth.
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