Heloon Desert and the South Seas
by Chris Wayan, 2005-6
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Heloon Desert is named for its most spectacular feature, Heloon Crater, a double-walled impact basin so big and complex it merits its own page. This page will cover the desert around it to the east, south and west. I'll try to ignore the monster in the middle, but it's rather like ignoring that rhinoceros in your bed.
Heloon Desert is flyote country, as you can tell by all those yapping, percussive names on the map: the River Gyak, Bwekko Crater, the Koyabee River...
But even flyotes don't densely inhabit much of the desert plains; they stick to the river valleys where they can irrigate their crops. In fact, the deep desert is the least populous lowland on Tharn. It's just too dry. All you'll find are rare bands--not even herds--of dwarf wingbok.
The eastern desert shades into savanna, especially north of the Palrak Lakes. These lakes shrink and spread with the seasons, so you may find two, three, or four of them, surrounded by marsh, savanna, or dry mudflats. The locals don't rely exclusively on the lakes for water, for the Palrak Veldt gets some rain--it's the edge of the great Barsoom Basin to the northwest. Fairly reliable streams cross the plains most of the year.
It's drier to the south--true desert. The only oasis is long Lake Hemitho. Shallow even for Tharn, Hemitho's as changeable as our Lake Chad. It's a bit brackish but drinkable, for its main source is seasonal snowmelt from Sola Upland, with few dissolved salts. But the annual floods and droughts have left the shore relatively barren--part salty clay-pans, part marsh; not a tree in sight.
Lake Hemitho's more mellifluous name is obviously not of flyote origin; it's a centah name, for these elegant feline centauroids are about the only people to regularly visit the lake. Not live, just visit; nomadic herding is about the only way to make a living here. Even if you could farm these muddy, shifting shores, you shouldn't; the lake is just too flood-prone.
So the centahs visit the lake, grazing and watering their losha herds here, and do a little fishing, but only seasonally. They prudently live on the higher, safer foothills of the Lothar Range to the east--the outermost apron of Heloon Crater.
What's a losha? A domesticated marsupial giving both milk and rubbery turtle-like eggs, and looking just as peculiar as that sounds: a sort of dino-ostrich-roo with a perpetually perplexed expression.
In this case you can judge the book by its cover. Losha have only three moods: panic, the munchies, and utter bewilderment. They're prone to pointless stampedes, but centahs can handle that--they don't even need to saddle up to chase them down, being just as fast and liking to run--they get the fidgets themselves if they don't do a few miles a day. And losha can go up to a week without water; they're the only real choice for herders on these huge arid plains.
Hemitho has no resident flyotes. Although you might expect these clever diggers to irrigate fields by the lake, flyotes aren't long-distance fliers; they want their homes near their fields. Hemitho's flat, muddy, marshy shores are too unstable, and lack bluffs suitable for digging cliff-burrows with scenic views and steady updrafts (flyotes like to commute to work the easy way). Inconvenient. And in spring when snowmelt makes the water rise, the gnats swarm. I forgot to mention the gnats. All hundred million of them.
So far at least the flyotes have left Lake Hemitho to the centahs... who really don't want it either.
Can I sell you a nice used lake?
HEART OF THE DESERT
From Lake Hemitho south, in the deep desert, the only prominent features are the rays. These low ridges are the worn stumps of monstrous walls of molten debris from the Heloon impact 400 million years ago. River canyons still follow the troughs of older rock between the rays.
The only oases in the southeast are twin rivers, each about 1900 km (1200 mi) long--the Koyabee and the River Gyak. They rise in the Lothar Mts (the outer ringwall of Heloon Crater) and flowing south across the Heloon Desert to the Anthor Sea. Flyotes farm their oxbows and live in cliff-dwellings in their canyon walls.
The wide red desert west of the Gyak has only one feature of note: Bwekko Crater. Far smaller and younger than Heloon, Bwekko's a mere 80 km wide (50 mi)--a simple ring of mountains around a dry, hot bowl with a brackish little marsh at its low point. A few flyotes live on the ring-ridge and irrigate small gardens in the canyons between the splash-rays, and a few families of centahs herd small flocks.
In a rainier latitude, Bwekko Crater would stand out as a dark-forested ring around a blue lake--a great oasis. But here in the desert's heart, it's just red on red. A dry hole.
Past 40 degrees south, Heloon's red plain softens to gold. Winter rains aren't generous or reliable enough for farming here, but nomads herd losha. Down here, the nomads aren't centahs as in the north, but a dryland subspecies of mop, tall and slender as a Maasai, feathered only during winter, molting to scales (except the proud crest and tail) in the summer heat.
Herds of plains wingbok also graze these dry and thin-aired steppes--dwarfed, they're not bright enough to be of cultural interest, except for one small offshoot who headed south... and got lucky. You'll see how in a minute.
Past 45 south, the rains grow reliable, and scattered trees break the steppe, slowly merging into an evergreen forest as big as Western Europe. In the heart of this rainbelt, three great seas sprawl: in the foreground, the Ugor Sea, an irregular body 1100 km (700 mi) long and half as wide; to the east, the Anthor Sea, a near-perfect twin; and to the northwest, the smaller Shaleen Sea, sending shallow arms up into the desert. Shaleen evaporates steadily in the dry air, and is by far the saltiest of the three; most of its water comes from the short, slightly brackish Ugor River--really just an overflow from the Ugor Sea, and the freshwater Anthor Sea beyond. In essence, little Shaleen is an ocean smaller than the two lakes feeding it! Or you can say there are just two seas; the Ugor River's a long narrow sea-strait with a strong current, like Earth's Gibraltar or Bosporus. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"... or in this case salty.
In wetter eras, all three seas swell and fuse into a shallow but respectable ocean. The shoreline forest drowns, of course, but new forest spreads around the swollen sea as the rains increase. Bunch grass marches far ahead of the invading trees. Indeed, this combined, temporary ocean turns the whole southern Heloon Desert into a fertile prairie, not the windy dry steppe it is today.
Several intelligent species share the rainbelt: thotters fish off the shores and islands of all three seas; bipedal, marsupial camaroos farm, trade and wander; and squawking featherballs called mops (sketched below) live in the forests.
Pastoral bands of centahs camp and trade every summer, but winters here are too cold for them; they retreat north to the foothills of the Lothar Range near warm Lake Hemitho.
Oosh Tundra to the south has one more species--mamooks. Hard to miss: these lichen- and grass-eating nomads are dino-sized. They need to be, in that chilly climate.
The rainbelt's climate is ideal for hand-snouted, tree-tending elaffes, but so far none have made it over Trunzip Pass; they can't breathe stratospheric air, and unlike smaller species who can ride pack animals even if they're altitude-sick, elaffes are too big to carry. In a way, they're present, though; big stretches of these temperate woods aren't native, but are mop-planted orchards; and those fruit trees were bred by elaffes. Seeds can go where their tenders can't.
THE KAYAKAI ISLANDS
In the northern Ugor Sea is an archipelago, the Kayakai Islands, where a small herd of wingbok got stranded eons ago. They altered so profoundly that we must treat them as a third subspecies, neither plains nor trench wingbok. We'll call them island wingbok, for the local name is quite misleading: "flightless" wingbok. Actually, most can fly short distances--but it's not easy. For they're as big as the largest of trench wingbok, 2-3 times the average weight of their plains ancestors, and with brains to match. The picture below does not show a mother and fawn; that's an adult plains wingbuck beside an island wingdoe (and not a tall woman at that). Note her higher forehead and proportionately larger skull, as well as a second mutation that may be related to the size-change: dark whiteless eyes like hers are common in trenches as well as the islands, but rare in plains wingbok.
Presumably, a tiny group of plains wingbok flew here during the last Dry Age, when sea levels were low and the islands were larger but drier: grass and scattered groves. One mutant individual, smart and tool-handy but too big to be a good flier in the thin air, must have thrived in the absence of predators on the islands, while similar mutants on the mainland got eaten. Her descendants became Kayakai wingbok. Island gigantism!
Of course, the gene restricting wingbok growth to match air density so that flight remains practical must have mutated many times all over Tharn. Other temperate islands should have flightless mutants too, but none have been found. The Kayakai tribe's uniqueness suggests that either:
- The mutation is rare indeed.
- The Kayakai Eve (or Adam) was lucky, or else mutants in other archipelagoes had terrible luck.
- Predation in ancient times was horrendous.
For whatever reason, here alone, they survived: as large and intelligent as trench wingbok, but poor fliers in the Himalayan air--50 meters and they're exhausted! Yet Kayakai wingbok are not unathletic; indeed, they're tireless runners and decent swimmers. The tongue-hand is large, dexterous, and usually holding something; the islanders have a richer material culture than most trench wingbok, with warm, solid, thatched huts, rafts for long lake-trips (to propel them, they just hang on and flap, or catch the winds--living sails!), and even bark hats and ponchos for winter.
Maybe it's the cool climate that's stimulated tool-use, or the lack of a need to stay light (heavy possessions and flight don't mix), or maybe it's the neighbors. Mops have a woodworking obsession, and thotters have reed-woven and sculpted for at least twenty millennia. Was it wingbok vanity--just wanting something cool to trade?
These wingbok have a second distinction: one of the few Tharnian peoples to change their environment on a large scale, deliberately. Island wingbok set controlled burns to clear brush, keep the forest open and parklike, and encourage the sweeter grasses, herbs and berry patches they prefer. Without wingbok, the Kayakais would likely be unbroken forest today with sparse wingbok grazing; they've maintained a patch of the Dry Age that created them.
Talk about returning a favor!
Why haven't they spread? They can, after all, reproduce full-size out on the plains, unlike all the trench subspecies. I'm not sure. It may be simple: the shores around their artificially open islands are all dense forest, unappealing to a wingbok, and in any case settled by others better suited to the woods. To the islanders, the vast prairies of Tharn that could be theirs are just a distant fairytale.
So far. But all it will take is one reckless couple of newlyweds signing on to a caravan that makes it to Heloon Crater or the fertile plains of Barsoom, who send back excited letters proving to their stay-at-home kin that the wide world over the desert is real.
THE RAINSHADOWED WEST
The western and northwestern Heloon Desert is near the impact basin; streams from its heights feed Lake Falnet. This is about the only oasis, for unlike the plains east of Heloon Crater, the west isn't savanna but true desert. The Jahar Range, a wall of shield volcanoes taller than the Himalaya, blocks most equatorial storms. Away from Lake Falnet, the only inhabitants are dwarfed plains wingbok, resembling winged antelope.
Are they people? Plains wingbok brains average half a kilo, the same range as wolves, chimps and gorillas; and like ravens or parrots on Earth, wingbok brains are highly efficient for that weight, which pushes up against the strict flight-weight limits on these thin-aired plains. They use stone tools (grasped in their long, forked, prehensile tongues) and have a simple language, but otherwise behave much like horses or other herd animals on Earth. Judging from behavior, their minds are awkwardly midway between apes and humans. More awkward yet, other subspecies of wingbok in friendlier environments are clearly intelligent by any species' standard. Tharnians have a whole spectrum of terms for such beings in between; half-people, three-quarters-people, social-but-not-tool-people, and so on. While such epithets may sound ominously like racism to Terran readers, Tharnians are faced with a real dilemma here, and not just about wingbok--flyotes, for example, pose a similar classification problem.
The western border of Heloon Desert is the Wula Rift, a spreading zone much like our East African Rift. The ridges (and occasional volcanoes) catch enough rain to feed thin forest on their heights, and shallow streams run east, down to the desert, where they collect in the winding Shaleen River. Villages of flyotes, mops and camaroos nestle in these rugged canyons--cold in winter, thin-aired, but more sheltered than the desert below. Think of it as cowboy country--with one exception.
Down in the rift itself is Lake Oonira, 320 km long but only 65 wide (200 by 40 mi). Brackish and alkaline, Oonira has no outlet. Snowy ridges surround the lake; its shores are dry grassy steppes. Grotesque tufa towers and pyramids line the shore, and tufa reefs run down the lake's center. Here, hot vents feed strange life forms: the largest are rubbery, eight-legged pseudocrabs up to a 2 meters across. And thermophilic bacteria often stain the lake with bloody purple clots.
And Oonira's just one of a long chain of similar riftlakes--Lakes Wssh and Rishish to the north (just off the map, in southern Barsoom Basin) are even larger.
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