by Chris Wayan, 2004
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The Arthom (singular: artho) are an arboreal people with a spidery, vaguely simian or feline frame. Unlike monkeys or cats, though, they have mothlike, scaly, bright-patterned wings. Arthom are small, standing only 1.2 m at full height, with a wingspan of 2-3 m; they're quite light, massing 10-20 kilos, which in Tharn's light gravity weighs only 5-10 (12-24 lbs), light enough for true flight, at least from tree to tree. They lack the stamina for very long-distance flight, but are quite aerobatic, zigzagging like bats (and for the same reason: their homeland has large, tasty flying insects).
Arthom distribution is the most limited of all Tharn's peoples--they're almost entirely restricted to Har Trench where they first evolved. It's not that their culture is clannish or incurious about the wide world above them; their isolation's in the blood. Literally! Arthom lack a good adjustment mechanism for their oxygen transport system. Most Terran vertebrates adjust to thin air by producing extra hemoglobin within a few days--but arthom never fully adjust. It doesn't help that Har is one of the deepest trenches in the world: the shores of Lake Rrit are 5.5 km below the plains (18,000' down); double the oxygen! While they can breathe with effort up on the bed-plains, the air's too thin to fly in. So arthom out of their trench aren't just ill, but grounded. A flier's nightmare!
In uplands, arthom simply collapse; even being carried over a low pass risks brain damage. All the caravan routes out of Har are so hazardous that no artho's ever crossed the equator. A few trade representatives and diplomatic families now live in nearby Chanath Trench among the trench wingbok, after a grueling 5000-km caravan around Tarkas Upland's northern tip, threading the lowest-altitude path they could between the volcanoes and dorsae of Tars Triangle. Arthom explorers have also visited the flooded trench of Ghasta to the south, but the shore of the Ghasta Sea is barely below datum; the air's too thin to fly in, so no arthom have settled there.
A second reason arthom don't travel: Har Trench is warm, unbroken forest, and arthom only feel easy in a tree. Travel means feeling sick and crippled, but also trapped on the ground. And not just any ground: the deserts and bare steppes around Tarkas horrify arthom the way some humans fear heights.
Though arthom are small, their voices are as loud as parrots (prairie creatures can semaphore with wings or tails, but in dense cover, a screech is as good as a cellphone). They evolved filling a parrotlike niche, too, eating nuts and fruit in the rainforest canopy. But parrots with a dash of chimp: they also hunted small game, snared birds and fish. Oh, and add a drop of bat--arthom can fly blind by sonar, and snap large insects on the wing.
The quick reactions needed for sonar and bug-hunting carry over to all artho mentation: a human second is subjectively three to five seconds for an artho. They have a reputation for quick and elegant wit that may just be all that extra time they have to choose the perfect bon mot! But the time differential makes their intricate music squeaky and peculiar, rather inaccessible to other species; what's more, their songs often contain embedded narrative sonar images telling a story, instead of verbal lyrics. A non-artho may not even realize it's a song. Arthom themselves report such song-images have a hallucinatory quality. Our closest analogs might be film or video.
The only other Tharnians to grasp artho songs and poetry intuitively are thotters, who have a small sonar bulb in their foreheads; air and water are very different media, but at least these two echolocating peoples share a general worldview, or more precisely a world-listen (human languages are so damn visual!). Thotters musicians say artho echo-signatures seem partly intelligible, if grotesquely distorted.
Artho social lives are gregarious. They're competitive, and individuals sometimes fight, but bigger isn't always better among them. The need to stay agile in flight has put a size-cap on the species that's had social consequences: like ravens (and unlike humans), there's no size difference between the sexes (wing-color is the best guide to gender; blue, green and violet are usually female; pink, reds and yellows are usually male.)
Though sexual behavior patterns vary widely by tribe, from ravenlike pair-bonding to chimplike promiscuity, the harem pattern seen in many Terran mammals is conspicuously absent. Unenforceable, without dimorphism?
Artho economics are diverse. Nut-hoarding and fruitpicking led to the earliest agriculture on Tharn; many tree-crops are artho; seeds and seedlings are major exports, especially to warmer regions.
Artho farmers also tend colonies of edible termites that cut leaves to feed a symbiotic fungus in hothouses deep in their mud towers. Tharn's the only world I know of where farmers farm farmers! The arthom harvest a sort of honey, eggs, termites themselves, and the fungus too: four crops in one! Termite-taming has spread to at least three peoples: from lobbras (originally) to arthom and bos. The sketch shows a bo tending a termite skyscraper in dry veldt; I haven't seen any artho termite farms myself, but they're reportedly similar, except that Har is greener country.
Most arthom today are fishers, orchardists, termite-farmers, woodworkers (their skill is renowned, rivaling the fabled northern mops), musicians, traders...
Just not travelers.
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