The Curmudgeon


Sunday, May 23, 2004

Planetary Survey No.9: In the Sarlaningan Deserts

The ghobes of Sarlaninga are scaly, lizard-like beings with two powerful legs and great muscular tails which make up half the total length of their bodies. Their usual mode of travel is a rapid trot across the fine black sands of Sarlaninga, during which they lift their long, flexible feet high in the air and bring them down hard on the ground, at the same time swishing their tails from side to side to aid themselves in balancing. This method of locomotion stirs up vast dense clouds of Sarlaningan dust, within which the herds of ghobes appear to move as though inside some shapeless ghostly ship; it is no doubt these dust-clouds which are responsible for the planet’s ancient legend that the ghobes were originally born from sandstorms.

The ghobes have no forelimbs; all grasping, manipulating and self-defence is performed with the mouth which, when tightly closed against the dust, is a thin vertical line extending around half the entire circumference of the creature’s spherical head. A ghobe’s head is not made up, like an Earth vertebrate’s, of an upper section comprising cranium, face and upper jaw and a lower section comprising only the lower jaw; instead, it consists of two equal portions, joined at the neck by a complex triple ball-and-socket mechanism which allows movement of either jaw separately or of the entire head.

Ghobe herds travel continuously between sunrise and sunset, relying on the dust-clouds and their own speed to confuse and deter predators. While in motion, the ghobes drop folds of thick skin over their eyes and nostrils, in order to protect them from the dust; consequently, during the daytime they are invariably quite blind, and have to breathe using special air sacs which run down the sides of their bodies, from their necks to the base of their tails. These sacs, which perform a function similar to that of the camel’s hump, are refilled every night, when the ghobes come to rest. When this happens, the entire herd stands in a circle, each member no more than a few feet away from the next, and all facing outwards so that their excellent night vision may catch the first sign of danger from any direction.

The process by which the ghobes determine where to go during their daily migrations has never been satisfactorily explained. Each night, besides panting heavily to refill their flaccid air sacs, they use their feet to dig beneath the sand for scrockles. These mysterious creatures nest in underground warrens which the ghobes excavate from the perimeter inwards, thus cutting off all possible exits from the very beginning of the enterprise and ensuring that few if any of the residents escape. As scrockle-warrens are extremely hard to find even with sophisticated man-made equipment, and as the successes of the ghobes in discovering them tend to outnumber their failures by a ratio of approimately five to one, it seems that the ghobes have some form of intenal radar for the detection, at considerable distances, of some non-visual phenomenon produced by the scrockles, perhaps a chemical used by them for communication purposes. We are unlikely to find out much more on the subject until the scrockles themselves can be studied in detail; unfortunately, as has already been noted, the only reliable indicators of the whereabouts of their warrens are the ghobe herds, which rarely leave anything behind to study apart from a neatly piled pyramid of sand surrounded by their own characteristically long, thin footprints.

The ghobes’ only predator is the Cazibuan rectula, a tailless quadruped which in size and basic outline bears some resemblance to a hyena, except of course that its large, blunt head, like the ghobe’s, possesses a vertical mouth. The ghobe is far from being its only prey; indeed, the rectula subsists almost entirely on carrion and such smaller animals as the spufts, yarkles and blifferits with which the desert abounds. Somewhat inferior in size, and unable to protect itself adequately against either the ghobe’s dust-clouds or its formidable teeth, a rectula will tackle a ghobe only during the singular ritual which every herd enacts at regular intervals for a purpose as yet unknown.

On an average of two out of every hunded and nineteen nights, the herd will come to a halt more or less as usual, forming at sunset the customary outward-facing circle while its members replenish their air supplies. There is, however, no digging, and even if a potential threat appears on the horizon it is as likely to elicit no reaction at all as either of the usual defences, namely flight or the kicking up of a stationary sandstorm.

After about an hour, which is the maximum time a ghobe’s air sac takes to fill up, every member of the herd, taking great care not to break the circle, slowly turns through a hundred and eighty degrees to face the inside of the ring instead of the outside. The first to begin the turn are the oldest and slowest, and the motion gradually permeates its way through the entire gathering of fifty to seventy ghobes, the youngest and most agile being the very last to start, so that the whole herd comes simultaneously face to face. With a similar, dreamlike stateliness, each ghobe, from the oldest to the youngest, then raises its left foot to balance itself on its right foot and the tip of its tail. The grace and precision of each of these collective manoeuvres is all the more remarkable for being performed with closed eyes by all concerned.

A herd of ghobes will remain spread out in a perfect circle, every one of its members in this frozen, vulnerable posture, until sunrise, when the normal routine is taken up again as if nothing had happened. Occasionally one of the creatures will overbalance during the night; as a ghobe under these circumstances is never capable of righting itself, the others will leave it behind for the rectulas. More often, though, the rectulas will actually come and drag victims away by the tail during the ritual itself. These victims are not necessarily selected from among the old, the very young, and the sick, as it seems that not even being caught in the powerful jaws of a predator can break the trance-like state of a ghobe at these times; the gutted corpses of young and old, of weak and strong alike have been observed at rectula dens with the left leg raised and the tail stuck straight out behind, just as if the creature were still standing in place in the circle.


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