Image from Steve Bowers
The Yssa'arah (yiss-AH-ah-ruh) are one of the lesser-known reptilian splice Clades. Though they come from humble beginnings, they have managed to develop into something humbler still.


The sophonts that would become the Yssa'arah were created sometime during the middle of the Solsys Era. The exact date is a mystery; this is due in equal parts to the loss of records during the Technocalypse and to the fact that the Yssa'arah had their origins in a classified military project. What is known is that several nations on Old Earth were engaged in ideological conflicts with each other and with their offworld colonies. The Yssa'arah were designed for the espionage portion of these conflicts. While the name of the nation that made the Yssa'arah is lost to history, it is known to have been somewhere on the continent of Asia.

The creators of the Yssa'arah did not originally disclose that their product was sapient; instead they advertised their creations as presapient laborers. The Yssa'arah were too small to perform heavy industrial or agricultural labor, so they were instead used for light indoor work — which is exactly what their creators intended. As cooks, maids, janitors, and personal attendants the Yssa'arah had many opportunities to eavesdrop or to plant surveillance devices. The Yssa'arah's creators successfully placed their spies in a number of foreign and offworld embassies, and some of the splices were even taken into the homes of wealthy colonists. The Yssa'arah provided their makers with copious amounts of useful intelligence, and very few of their victims ever suspected the true source of the leaks. Espionage — and later, sabotage — performed by the Yssa'arah was a major factor in the outcomes of the Martian and Jovian bids for independence.

The Yssa'arah's heyday came to an end shortly after the first time one of them was caught spying. Other arrests followed. The prisoners were interrogated by various means including drugs, torture, and simple sleep deprivation, and the questioners obtained several confessions. The sapience of the Yssa'arah was a secret no longer, and some of the details of their spying became public. Reprisals against the clade as a whole soon followed (there are no surviving records of reprisals against their creators, though fragmentary reports of diplomatic sanctions against China and Japan may be related to this incident). Hundreds of Yssa'arah were executed before firing squads, and thousands more fell prey to vigilantes. The clade would have been hunted to extinction if humane influences had not prevailed. The surviving Yssa'arah were placed aboard prototype exploration craft and launched into the interstellar void — the corporations that made the ships regarded the convict crews as expendable, and the data that they sent back was invaluable. Most such ships were lost, but two found safe harbors where the Yssa'arah could found communities. Ironically, this punishment placed the Yssa'arah among the pioneers who made interstellar travel a reality; the prison ships proved the technology that was used on later vessels. Exile from Solsys also spared the Yssa'arah the horror of the Technocalypse.

As the frontier of Terragens expansion moved further outward the Yssa'arah moved with it. They sometimes abandoned their existing settlements to do so, but they never abandoned the mission for which they were designed. Modern Yssa'arah are common sights on frontier worlds and in any polity that is lawless enough to make crime possible and sufficiently regulated to make it profitable.

Appearance and Capabilities

The Yssa'arah are essentially large lizards with increased cranial volume and a modified bone structure that allows them to stand upright. When standing a Yssa'arah leans forward slightly with the tail extended for balance. Height ranges from about 0.7-1.0 meter, with a tail of the same length (length on all fours is roughly twice the standing height). The skin is light brownish-gray and bears fine scales. Yssa'arah skin is smooth to the touch and is too thin to provide armor protection. The eyes are the same color as the skin and have slit pupils. The fingers and toes are long with large rounded pads on the ends. Body mass is about 30-40 kilograms (assuming both good health and physical fitness). This small size makes Yssa'arah physically weak; the largest of them are little more than half as strong as a typical baseline.

The human traits spliced into the Yssa'arah genome mainly code for brain function. The Yssa'arah brain is both larger and more convoluted than that of an unmodified lizard of comparable size. Most of the added cranial volume is devoted to forebrain. Changes to the visual cortex allow for visual acuity and pattern recognition equal to that of baselines. There is also a marked increase in the degree of connectivity between the auditory and visual cortices and the hippocampus. Even with the added brain volume and complexity Yssa'arah have noticeably less reasoning ability than baselines do, but Yssa'arah have excellent memory for whatever they see and hear. Those who can afford it often use neural implants to correct the deficiency in intelligence.

The lizard portion of Yssa'arah biology — that is, the majority of it — is drawn from several sources. The base biology is an even mix of the varanidae (monitor lizards) and agamidae (hot climate ground lizards). There are also important contributions from the gekkonidae (geckoes). Traits from all three families have been enhanced beyond the levels found in unmodified lizards. Yssa'arah are omnivores who can eat meat, plant matter (vegetables or fruit) or insects. Varanid constitution — some monitors are carrion eaters — allows Yssa'arah to eat food that is partly spoiled and grants them great resistance to ingested poisons. Yssa'arah also have the varanids' excellent swimming ability and superior sense of smell. Their agamid heritage grants them near-superhuman reflexes and tolerance for high temperatures. The pads on Yssa'arah feet allow them to climb on sheer surfaces — this is basically built-in geckotech. The presence of gecko traits gives Yssa'arah superb night vision. The Yssa'arah skeleton, in addition to allowing for both bipedal and quadrupedal locomotion, has special shoulder joints that can be dislocated with minimal pain and no long-term ill effects. This allows a properly trained Yssa'arah to squeeze through any hole large enough to accommodate eir head.

Most impressive of all is the Yssa'arah ability to change color to blend into their surroundings. The original design used genes from chameleons, but that mechanism for color change proved to be too slow for the designers' purposes — genes from cephalopods were used instead. Yssa'arah can mimic complex patterns and can even change color fast enough to accommodate movement across a stationary background. A rudimentary form of Optical Phased Array display allows the Yssa'arah to be practically invisible from all angles.

This ability doesn't work at speeds faster than a slow walk, however. Some individuals are augmented with photophores that allow them to increase the luminosity of their skin. This uncommon and expensive enhancement allows camouflage with a brightly-lit sky or nighttime starscape as the background. Yssa'arah camouflage works best if they are nude or nearly so, which is a problem in cold weather. They deal with this by wearing transparent clothing when they must venture into cold climates.

Yssa'arah suffer from the limited lifespan issues that are common in splices, rianths and provolves. The average life expectancy is about 100 years barring accident, incident, or medical intervention. Advanced medical care can more than double the lifespan for those who can afford it, but accidents can still happen (or be arranged…). Sexual maturity occurs at around the age of 12, and legal majority follows within two years in most communities. Fertility continues until the last two decades of life. Yssa'arah are oviparous, with the sex of offspring strongly linked to the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. Each female can lay a clutch of up to 20 eggs every year, though not all will hatch. Even with an infant mortality rate that is higher than average for the technology level in which they live, Yssa'arah are quite prolific. Mothers routinely cull offspring who are found to have genetic defects.

The most important limitation of the Yssa'arah is their temperature regulation biology. They are not truly cold-blooded like their lizard ancestors, but their homeostatic mechanisms are less efficient than those of baselines. This makes Yssa'arah vulnerable to extremes of both heat and cold. Yssa'arah don't handle cold nearly as well as baselines do, and they become feverish and hyperactive in high temperatures. Overall, they prefer heat to cold; Yssa'arah can tolerate hot weather longer than baselines can (thanks to their agamid genes), but baselines can survive higher temperatures. The upside of this arrangement is that Yssa'arah have low infrared signatures — an important bonus, as their dermal camouflage is strictly in the visible light range — and don't have to eat as often as true endotherms of the same size would. Being semi-ectothermic also decreases their biological oxygen demand. A typical Yssa'arah can hold eir breath for about five minutes, and highly trained individuals can last even longer.


The basic unit of Yssa'arah culture is the clan. A clan is an extended family consisting of a dominant male, his wives, their parents (if the parents are past breeding age), their children and their grandchildren. Most Yssa'arah males have only one or two wives, but wealthy or powerful males may have up to nine. Every male is considered a clan head when his first child is born. Serious trespasses against one's clan may result in expulsion.

The clan in turn is the foundation of the House. A House consists of two or more clans whose heads are related by blood or marriage. Any male who is a brother, son, nephew, grandson, grandnephew, brother-in-law or son-in-law of the Elder (the oldest male of the House) may swear fealty to the House when he comes of age or when he marries into any clan of that House. Some Houses are more prestigious than others and not all clans enjoy House membership. In the event of the Elder's death the next oldest male assumes the office… and it is not unknown for impatient sons or younger brothers to hurry the process along. A clan head who betrays his House may cause his entire clan to be expelled from the House if the infraction is serious enough (a failed assassination attempt on the Elder definitely counts).

The above would seem to indicate that the Yssa'arah have a male-dominated society, but that is not really the case. Females remain with their clans and Houses throughout their lives; it is males who change their family names when they marry. And because the wives in most households outnumber their husbands, it is a simple matter for them to influence the clan head if they work together. Only when the wives are divided can the husband rule with an iron fist. It is common for the senior wife to be the de facto leader of a clan, and many a Matron (wife of the Elder) rules her House in all but name. The Elder Emeritus (the Elder's father or predecessor) and Matron Emeritus (the Matron's mother or predecessor) serve as advisors to the Elder and Matron, but custom forbids them from taking active part in running the House.

This grand social structure belies the base activity upon which Yssa'arah culture is founded. Yssa'arah clans and Houses bear little resemblance to the noble houses of ancient legend — they're more like the crime families of the Information Age. The Yssa'arah engage in information brokering, theft, espionage, smuggling and even assassination. Most clans specialize in one type of activity, but all Houses diversify. Training in observation and memorization — the better to spy on others — infiltration techniques and the basics of breaking and entering are part of early childhood education. Many Yssa'arah are trained as domestic workers for the same reasons that their ancestors were. Individuals who are skilled in designing or circumventing information security are especially well regarded. Yssa'arah sell their skills to the highest bidder and will undertake any job that appeals to them regardless of its legality. The one redeeming virtue of this culture of subterfuge is what has come to be called "Yssa'arah Honor." They make a point of only lying by omission unless under direct orders to disseminate misinformation, they never discuss a client's business with other (or potential) clients, and once bought they stay bought. The criminal nature of Yssa'arah culture is not common knowledge — they don't advertise their services in any way, and they actively try to destroy any records of their origins that they uncover. Instead they use their skills at uncovering information to find potential clients and then offer their services to those parties. All other work is the result of referrals from past or current clients. To the galaxy at large the Yssa'rah are a race of entertainers, domestics and minor functionaries.

The at best quasi-legal nature of Yssa'arah economies means that they are always found in places where transapient intervention does not prevent such activity, and they scrupulously avoid locales where their history is widely known. The largest population of Yssa'arah is in the NoCoZo, the second largest concentration is in the Seams and there are smaller groups in the Hinterlands. Yssa'arah greatly prefer to live in polities where there is a good mix of clades and usually shun any place that has a communal distribution of resources — their economy requires a monetary system of some kind. Some clans have adapted to use barter and/or data as their medium of exchange.

The Yssa'arah developed their own language during their exile. This was partly to assert a cultural identity separate from that of their creators and partly because of the difficulty that they have in speaking tongues that are designed for the human vocal apparatus. The Yssa'arah language is simple yet surprisingly nuanced. The vocal component consists mainly of sibilants (the consonants "s" and "z") and aspirants (vowels and the consonant "h"). The language also contains a number of non-phonetic sounds — mostly whistles and clicks — and a rich vocabulary of visual signals. Blinks, winks, tail gestures and changes in the color and/or pattern of the skin all serve as modifiers. For example, the phoneme cluster for "love" could be clarified as love between a male and female by a series of blinks, designated as sexual love by taking on a vivid skin color and specified as a sexual proposition by a subtle tail movement. There are hundreds of dialects of Yssa'arah; they differ mainly in the details and proportions of the nonverbal components (i.e. how much each one depends on blinks or color changes). Each House has its own dialect, and the largest Houses have separate dialects among their constituent clans as well. The fact that the visual components are integral to the meaning of a given communication mean that Yssa'arah make a point of looking at someone who is talking to them. Conversely, they tend to assume that anyone who isn't looking at them isn't paying attention to what they're saying. Those who have experience with other cultures know that meaning can be conveyed by words alone, but this knowledge is counter-intuitive for Yssa'arah.

The most important holiday of the year for Yssa'arah is the Night of Thunder. This solemn occasion commemorates the mass executions that preceded the Clade's diaspora. Each clan or House sets up an outdoor fireworks display with charges that are designed to sound like gunshots. The traditional display has one charge per family member, including any who have died during the past year. After the fireworks the evening culminates in a community gathering where a stylized nanite is burned in effigy, followed by a ritualized Last Laugh. Yssa'arah make a point of celebrating the Night of Thunder on the night before the most festive holiday observed in their respective polities.

No Yssa'arah are known to have ascended to transapience, nor do many of them display any interest in doing so. The Yssa'arah aptitude for remaining unnoticed has sparked a legend that the Invisible Hand — one of the most secretive of all transapients — began life as a Yssa'arah and that even now e is the Great Elder who secretly rules all Yssa'arah Houses. This fanciful theory is no more or less implausible than any of the other myths that surround this enigmatic being.

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Development Notes
Text by Michael Walton
Initially published on 25 January 2007.