Furlitian Tales & Other Stories

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    On the cold distant world Aroriel -- where primate species never developed -- evolution spawned a furry saurian race that now reaches for the stars. Commander Geupetus of Clan Darius, offered command of the first near-lightspeed starship, hesitates to take the job, as Furlitian Law forbids his pre-adolescent twins Murkuria and Thorius from accompanying their Clan on this historic mission into interstellar space.
   Clan Darius, after careful deliberation as a family, driven by their rigid sense of military honor, discipline, and duty, decide they must squelch their emotions and accept the commission – leaving the twins on Aroriel. But the paradox caused by the Clan’s traveling near the speed of light means that IF the twins ever see their family again, they will be older than their parents!
   Distraught, Thorius conceives an outrageous plan to stow aboard the great starship.  He and Murkuria borrow a family shuttle, and whiz off, determined to reach the Space Center before dawn launch. With the help of Iggie, Murkuria’s pet Matissia, they sneak aboard the starship, inadvertently causing the Sunpyne to crash land on an alien world, where dinosaurian life like their own is long extinct, and strange primate beings that call themselves Human populate the planet.
   Following a violent first confrontation with two natives, they race to repair the ship. A second meeting, with a family camping out in the wilderness around the ship, results in friendship, and information exchange. However, after their Human friends leave to return to a distant home, the Human military locates the downed starship, just after they complete full repairs. Geupetus powers up the ship, but suddenly realizes his twins and one Cadet are not aboard. With enemy warcraft peppering the area with arms fire, and unable to lower shields to recover his children and crewmate, Geupetus refuses to leave without them.  Will the furlites ever see their beloved home again? Some sexual content.

Sample-Chapter One  THE FURLITES OF ARORIEL  Book I  On Matissia Wings

CHAPTER ONE

“Get off of her, you fat vachok!” Murkuria shouted, her entire red-gold coat bristling with anger. The object of her wrath lifted his head, his pale, white-blue eyes gleaming his scorn.

“Make me, gold-eyed freak!” he sneered, settling his rotund body on top of Tria’s tail. He snatched Tria’s electronic notebook from her grasp. With a shout of derision, he smashed the notebook to the snow. The girl sobbed as the cover of the device cracked on a hidden stone. The bully glanced back at the distraught little girl.

“Shut up, little moron,” he drawled, then returned his gaze to Murkuria. “Leave us alone, freak. This is not your business.”

“Kutius . . . ” Murkuria warned, her body trembling, her hands flexing with rage. Her thickly-muscled thighs quivered, and her toe-talons gouged deep into the packed snow. Her tail whipped the air. She wanted to rip that self-satisfied smirk from her classmate’s pudgy face. “Worthless vachok! Get off of her NOW!”

“Make me!” Kutius laughed his disdain. “Make me, you lover of dolts!”

Kutius bounced on the smaller girl’s tail. Tria wailed in pain and terror. Murkuria surged forward, her face mere octas[1] from his, her entire body shaking with wrath.

“Let her go.” She bared every tooth, her eight fangs gleaming under the clouded sky.

“No!” He laughed again, lashing out with his hand. His talons ripped into Murkuria’s chest. White and red-gold fur wafted away on the wind. Blood welled, staining her chest crimson. Pain lanced through her, dissolving her discipline. Red-hot wrath hazed her vision.

“Vachok!” She shrieked the vile oath. “I’ll rip your face off!”

“I will,” Kutius drawled his correction of her speech. “Big baby freak who cannot talk right.”

With an inarticulate roar, Murkuria launched her one-hundred-eight-octlo[2] athletic saurian body at the pudgy bully, slamming into him, bowling him over into the snow, octafets[3] from Tria. She pounced again, landing squarely on his flabby stomach, as he wiggled helplessly on his back. His legs flailed wildly, flexing at knees, hocks, and ankles, but his toe-talons did not touch her.

“You forgot the last time you provoked me to wrestle, you vachok!” Murkuria shouted, her hands raking into his matted fur, which flew in clumps to settle on the snow. “Greasy slop-ass! Do you ever bathe? Moron! And you dare mock Tria for her disability? Dokit turd!!”

 Kutius’ eyes widened, and he bellowed inarticulately as his minuscule discipline vanished. Murkuria sensed his rising terror, but her wrath doused her instinctive empathy. As her talons scraped skin, she balled her hands into fists. She pounded him furiously, barely aware of the silent circle of children watching. Someone chanted her name. She recognized Selarus’ voice. Murkuria smirked with smug pride as Getria’s voice seconded Selarus’. A few others joined in, and the volume grew. Murkuria took satisfaction in the support of her peers. She punched Kutius harder when Tria’s wavering voice joined the cheering. Kutius shrieked and sobbed, trying to push her off. His strength paled against hers.

“Vachok! Sorsa’s ass!” Murkuria snarled in time with her blows. “Slimebag! Never, ever touch Tria again!”

Kutius howled, shielding his face, one eye already swelling shut. A hand suddenly landed on Murkuria’s shoulder, icing down some of her raging fury. She noticed the others ceased cheering abruptly. Only Kutius’ screaming and weeping echoed in the snowy schoolyard.

“Murkuria, of Clan Darius.” The commanding tone doused the rest of her ire. “Please, stand up.”

Murkuria scrambled to her feet in a spray of snow. She faced the Disciplinary Officer, her remaining anger draining away through her feet. Kutius blubbered like an infant, rocking in the snow as he struggled to sit up.

“S-S-Sir, pl-please,” Murkuria stammered. “He s-s-started it.”

“Did not did not!” Kutius howled protest, weeping. “S-S-She beat me up for no reason! She attacked mm-mm-meeeee!”

“No reason, my butt, Kutius,” Murkuria snapped at him, her anger flaring momentarily before she gained control. “He was picking on Tria again! He even slashed me when I told him to get off her. Look!”

Murkuria pointed at her gashed chest, where blood dripped from her white hair, spreading into the red-gold color below.

“Yes, please, Sir.” Tria stepped boldly up to Murkuria’s side, her long white fur disheveled. Blood trickled in a line from a slash on her left hock, down her lower leg, staining her ankle and heel red, matting the white fur. She held out her damaged notebook. “Look what he did. He hurt me, too.” Tria’s voice trembled in a sob. “It is broken. What will I do?”

“My grandfather will look at it, Tria,” Murkuria said softly. “Do not worry about it.”

“I see, Tria.” The Officer smiled, his sharp violet eyes crinkling. He flicked his thick tail, returning his stern gaze to Murkuria. His gold-furred face frowned, as he eyed Kutius with disdain.

“I usually cannot condone fighting, but, in light of the evidence before me, you acted rightfully.” The Officer nodded. “Defending yourself and a younger child is reason enough.”

“You cannot l-let her get away with h-h-urting me!” Kutius wailed his disbelief. The Officer whirled on the bully, his long gold fur ruffling, his gaze hardening. He reached out, and hauled Kutius to his feet. Kutius slipped on the snow, hitting his knees, knocking his chubby hocks together before getting his feet under him.

“As for you, young man, this is the last time for this atrocious behavior. I have warned you twice. You will be suspended, for good!”

“Suspended?” Kutius gaped. Suddenly, he smirked. “Good, I hate school anyway.”

“Silence, foolish boy.” The Officer shook Kutius hard. He yelped, then kept quiet, glaring at Murkuria. She stared back, her outrage simmering.

“Murkuria, please, take yourself and Tria to the Infirmary. No further punishment will be meted out to you, but I must inform your parents of this.”

“I know.” Murkuria faced him bravely, though her heart quailed with sudden cold terror. Her parents despised misbehavior in school! She stood rooted to the snow. The Disciplinary Officer turned.

“The rest of you,” he barked to the silent children, “get back to class.”

The Disciplinary Officer strode away swiftly, tail stiff, back parallel with the ground, dragging Kutius along at his side. The bully stumbled and staggered, sobbing, protesting with every stride. As they entered the building, Murkuria lowered her gaze to the snow.

“Krufk, Father will be angry with me when the school calls,” she mumbled. A tug on her elbow hair broke her worrying.

“Thank you for helping me.” Tria gazed up at her, violet-blue eyes wide with awe and admiration. Absently, Tria brushed snow from her arms, revealing bright red-gold spots.

“You are welcome, Tria. Anytime,” Murkuria smiled. “Kutius is slime.”

“Murkuria! That was a wonderful thrashing!” Getria squeezed Murkuria’s arm in delight, her light-gold coat bristling with excitement. Her vivid blue eyes sparkled. “See you in class!” Getria laughed, and sprinted after the retreating children.

“Good to see you beat the krufk out of him.” Selarus nudged her, his long white copper-patched fur standing out from his body. His hands flexed subconsciously. “I cannot believe you held back from slashing him. Great control. See you at practice,” he added, before following the rest of the youngsters back inside.

“Thank you.” Murkuria smiled after the younger boy. He waved, his emerald eyes alight. Tria grinned, hugging her battered notebook.

“Come, let us get to the Infirmary,” Murkuria urged, and broke into a slow trot. Tria hurried to keep up, singing as she ran. Murkuria glanced down, grinning suddenly.

“By the triple moons, you have such a pretty voice! Why would anybody want to hurt you?”

“I don’t know,” Tria answered. “I mean, do not. Will your parents be angry?”

“Yes, I think so.” Murkuria heaved a sigh as she led Tria into the school building.

“Do you think it will be a long time before they tell your parents?” Tria asked.

“I hope so. I wish to tell my parents rather than the school telling them. At least Thorius will understand and approve.”

“He should, being your twin brother,” Tria said, as they hurried into the Infirmary.

“Oh, no! We have Shartball practice this afternoon, and will be home late.”

“Do not worry,” Tria smiled. “Maybe your father will be late, too. He will understand.”

“Yes, you may be right,” Murkuria murmured. Dull throbbing took her mind from that concern. She glanced down at her bloody chest. Krufk, she swore silently, would that grungy slimebag’s dirty talons infect her with vile bacteria? Rekindled anger drove away her fear as she noticed Tria’s limp. The slash on her hock bled freely now, leaving a red trail in the packed snow of the walkway. That fat Dokit turd deserved every bit of pounding she delivered to his filthy hide. Father and Mother will see that, she told herself. Summoning up her courage, she marched into the School Physician’s exam room, trying to ignore her fluttering stomach.

 

 

“Blast it all!” Ship Commander Geupetus curled his lips back, his temper at full throttle. “My twins are not foolish little idiots! They are spacefarers, born and bred to this work, like most of our Clan!”

“I am sure both are quite intelligent.” Siritus glared back, jaw set, his silver chin fur bristling.

“Then why? Why refuse me?” Geupetus bared his eyeteeth again. “Just because of some foolish law that needs changing? Why bow to the Council? What could that blasted Council do to you anyway? You are the Senior member. Vutz it all, I deserve a few favors.”

“I am sorry, Commander,” the Fleet Commander answered, his dark blue eyes flashing.

“Sorry? Is that all you can say?” Geupetus banged on the desk, balling his hand into a fist at the last second to avoid gouging the polished wood. The computer monitor flickered. “That is not good enough!”

“If you were anyone else,” Siritus growled in a deep baritone, “I would have you dragged out of here in chains.”

Geupetus spun away from the desk, his thick tail lashing in fury and frustration. He halted in front of the wide window, quelling the strong desire to tap his talons on the glass. His hands flexed. He stared into the deepening dusk, watching the snow fall. His saurian body shivered from head to tail-tip. With difficulty, he capped his temper, then drew a long breath.

“Again, I beg you,” Geupetus asked, voice rumbling low. “Reconsider. There must be a way.”

 Geupetus sensed the eyes riveted on his back, and heard Siritus’ low, growling sigh. He gazed at the falling snow, trying to remain calm, and waited. He did not wish to lose his temper again.

 “There is not.” Siritus’ rich, mellow voice replied. Geupetus faced his superior officer.

“I never ask for anything.” Geupetus’ frustrations returned to stab into his guts. He fought to keep his voice calm. “Why can you not grant me this one favor?”

 “I am truly sorry,” the ancient Furlite replied, his silver-furred face furrowing into a scowl. “The law is law, and I cannot break it just for you, though if anyone deserves a favor, it is you. You know I cannot, even as Senior Council member.”

 “Great blasted blackholes!” Geupetus’ temper simmered. “This is no short mission!”

 “I know, I know.” Siritus went behind his desk, then sat on the plush chair, slipping his silver tail through the gap in the seat back. “Geupetus, your twins have absolutely no Flight Education yet. None!” Siritus’ deep voice sharpened. “It will be two years before they start the Space Flight Educational Program in school. I am sure both are eager to do so, and they are old enough to understand the situation.”

 “Yes, they may understand, but they are also certainly old enough to comprehend the ramifications,” Geupetus argued, his voice rumbling, his temper boiling. “Twenty-five years will seem eternity to them. Emotionally, they will not understand at all.”

“They are children of the Fleet.” Siritus’ voice hardened. “They should handle this.”

 Geupetus clenched his jaw, grinding all eight eyeteeth past each other, starting a headache as they grated loud in his head. He forced himself to keep composed.

“Yes, they are true spacefarer material,” Geupetus growled. “They belong with their Clan.”

“On that, I do agree.” Siritus sighed, the annoyance gone from his dark blue eyes. “But no matter how angry you become, Geupetus, I cannot grant you this. I truly am sorry. I wish I could.”

“I know.” Geupetus grumbled, sagging inwardly, accepting his defeat. His stomach twisted with the effort of squashing his frustration. He scowled. “But I do not like it.”

 “You have not decided to take the assignment. Think it through. I am confident you will choose correctly.” Siritus’ voice softened. “Remember, you are my first choice.”

 “I am honored, but not happy.” Opening his slim case, Geupetus took the envelopes from the desk, and slipped them behind his electronic notebook. He frowned at Siritus. “I want the job, oh, do I, but that blasted law makes the decision all the harder.”

 “Believe me, I am sorry.”

 “So am I.” Geupetus nodded curtly. Siritus stood, then clasped Geupetus’ wrist.

 “I do hope you seriously consider returning to active duty. You are far more valuable up there than down here.” Siritus smiled wanly.

 Geupetus nodded once, a stab of longing touching deep into his guts, his temper fully under control. He knew the entire family must debate this logically. He met Siritus’ gaze, jaw still tight.

“You will have your answer from us tomorrow.” Geupetus picked up his satchel. “Have a good night, Fleet Commander.”

 “You, also.”

Geupetus nodded as he left the office, then walked down the corridor. His long strides clacked his toe-talons on the tiled floor as his massive leg muscles released pent-up tension. He broke into a trot, anxious to get home. Increasing his pace, he leveled his back parallel with the floor, hurrying toward the lobby, leaving gold and white hair in the wake of his lashing tail.

 

Anger rippled in every line of Geupetus’ massive gold and white two-hundred-fifteen-octlo body, and rage flamed in Geupetus’ volatile purple eyes as the disgruntled Ship Commander left Siritus’ office. Siritus sighed, listening to the hard strike of talons echoing up the corridor. It bothered him to rile the Commander’s legendary temper, but law was law. The Council would rattle his bones if he broke protocol, even just this once. Siritus tried to recall the last time he witnessed the volatile side of Geupetus’ personality, but the memory eluded him.

 The ancient Furlite stood up to stare out the window. He focused his attention on the herd of russet-striped white herbivorous Sorsas just outside the Complex fence. The lead male lifted his magnificently-horned head to gaze warily over the darkening prairie. Strong wind blew his thick mane straight out. As Siritus gazed at the animal in admiration, his own muscles relaxed. Light from the Complex lamps sparkled the twin horns sweeping from the creature’s brow, and the smaller horn jutting from the Sorsa’s nose glittered with a coating of snow. The stallion pawed snow away from the fence, revealing dried grass. A couple of slender-horned females jostled him aside to feed on the thick grasses. The stallion glanced over the prairie again before snatching a quick bite for himself. Siritus sighed again, intrigued by one of Aroriel’s few quadrupedal creatures, but watching did not decrease his concerns.

 Anxiety pulsed through his body, turning his stomach. Since he conceived this project over six years ago, he planned only one Clan for the job, and only one Ship Commander to sit in that Command Seat. Who better to crew the new ship than the people who designed the ship from its conception? If Geupetus refused, his father Orios, a genius of an Engineer, and his mother Isea, a top-notch Planetary Scientist, might decline as well. The final decision fell to Subcommander Nethunia, Geupetus’ spouse, a first-class Medical Psychologist, and a fine Biologist.

 Siritus spun away from the window, his talons clicking loudly on the polished floor as he paced. Six years ago, that entire family grounded itself. Why? Because their daughter Elara experienced some emotional trauma that healed years ago. At the top of her class in the SFEP, the young girl stood poised to start her career in the Fleet. Only concern for his young twins now blocked Geupetus’ desire to return to active duty.

“Blast it, Nethunia,” he muttered to empty air. “What terrible timing! You spaced your children just right to cause us problems. If the twins were only two years older, and in the dratted program, I could easily have arranged to get them aboard.” Siritus paced faster, lashing his tail, leaving a shower of silver hair in his wake. A voice halted his pacing.

 “Fleet Commander Siritus!” The good-humored voice mock-scolded. “What under the blasted triple moons has bitten your tail?”

 “Hello, Commander,” he answered, recognizing the voice of Geupetus’ Aunt Suria. He faced her, watching the inner mirth that always lit up her violet eyes. “What brings you here? I thought you were still on leave?”

 “All is fine at home. I had to check up on my ship.” She frowned deeply. “And what I found deeply disturbs me. Why did you ask me take Kintus as my Second?”

 “I apologize for that. Tradition dictates you should pick your own Ship Second.” Siritus’ frown matched hers. “That is the last time I do a favor for any Council member or Ship Commander, relative or not. Kintus is not fit to command anything larger than an old sled.”

 “And even that is too good for him,” Suria growled, her eyes dark with anger. “Thinking he could race my vessel of science through those blasted rings and twenty moons of Rotachi against a streamlined freighter ship? My Sauri is NOT built for high-speed maneuvering. Why did Commander Dugis agree to it? He should have known not to do this.”

 “Ah, but be grateful for the wisdom of your Helmsman, Subcommander Osus. He knew how to handle what occurred. He and Dugis brewed that plan in order to ground Kintus for good.” Siritus twitched his tail. “I should not have let Eseraria talk me into promoting her son to your ship.”

 “Yes, you should have thought of that at the time. The Sauri blew an engine!” Suria glowered. “Kintus is a fool! But Osus should have known better.” Suria spat out the words in fury. She loved her ship. Commanded by members of her family, Clan Darius, for over an octury[4] and a half, the Sauri now belonged to the Clan outright.

 “Osus did well, Suria. He knew the risk, and he sacrificed that one engine to ground Kintus. Otherwise, ship and crew are fine.”

 “Osus resented Kintus.” Suria glared, rage spitting sparks into her violet eyes. “My entire Clan did, and rightly so! Oh, to be stuck with that fool for so long when another deserved the position. I am just as much a cousin to you as Kintus, though I do not carry your Clan name. And my spouse Tharus is your grandnephew! Much closer in relationship to you than my mother, Kintus, or I! Why did you ever favor him over us? Is it because my mother and spouse allied with Clan Darius when they bonded, forsaking your family name? The Sauri is ours! Since when do you tell us whom to promote and where?”

 “I am so sorry, Suria. I was wrong, and did so against my better judgment. I never, ever, regretted that Thoria and Tharus allied with Clan Darius. I am proud they did so. One should never begrudge a bonded couple’s choice. You have a loyal crew, and when you see your ship, you will see that the damage sounds worse than it is. Your nephew Osus is a fine pilot.” Siritus put a hand on Suria’s arm. “Choose any Ship Second you want, except anyone from this listing.” He snatched up a readout hanging from his computer console, then handed it to her. She glanced at it before eyeing him.                                            

 “I already know who my choice is.” Suria’s wrath abated, and she raised a brow. “Something concerns you. I can sense it. Why were you pacing?”

 “Ah, Suria, your nephew is giving me severe stomach burn!”

 “Osus? All right, what did he do this time? I knew it! His hot temper . . . ”

 “No, not Osus. He has a commendation for what he did. I am talking of Geupetus.”

 “Geupetus??!!” Suria exclaimed, startled. Her sister Isea’s son never engaged in petty deeds and misdemeanors. Despite his explosive temper, he possessed marvelous control and discipline. “Geupetus? I cannot believe that he . . . ”

 “Do not fret so. You and your sister are so flappable. Geupetus is my first choice to command the Sunpyne.”

 Suria’s eyes widened. She broke into a beaming smile of pride and joy.

 “That is fantastic! What is so bad about that news???”

 “He has not yet agreed to take the assignment. The predicament is his young twins.”

 “Murkuria and Thorius? They seemed quite healthy when I saw them last, a few days ago.”

 “It is not their health. If Geupetus and Clan Darius decide to take the assignment, the twins will have to be left behind. He knows the children cannot go aboard, but he asked permission anyway.” Siritus began to pace again. “Suria, he asked three times, and he was in quite a rage when I refused.”

 “Did you expect otherwise? Do not worry so. The twins are not babies.”

 “Precisely the point. What if he does not accept Command of the Sunpyne because he and Nethunia want to save them that pain?”

 “Not take it?” Suria let out a laugh. “That nephew of mine itches for a Command again.”

 “He did not seem enthusiastic at all, just furious.”

 “He would not let this slip through his talons. Do not worry.”

 “I must. Should he refuse, I shall have to select another commander. Thanks to Kintus, I need you with the Sauri. The plans ahead for your ship require a commander well-acquainted with it.” Siritus paced, oblivious to Suria’s raised brow.

“I have no plans of relinquishing the Sauri,” Suria stated firmly.

“I need Geupetus with this ship.” Siritus ignored her words. “Of course, Geupetus can override any choices, including Ship Second, but that sheet you hold is a list of some of our finest.”

 “I would agree to that.” Suria read over the printout. “My grandniece will be very happy about this.” Suria glanced at him. “What do you think of the idea of allowing Geupetus’ twins aboard the Starship?”

 “What??” Suria’s question spun Siritus fully around, sharpening his rich voice. “That is absurd! True, both are doing well in school, and no doubt will excel in the Space Flight Educational Program, but use your head. What place would they have? What function would they serve? What jobs can they do? None. They are simply too young. I would not want two twelve-year-olds running around my ship!” Siritus’ tone softened. “It was his heart speaking tonight.”

 “I know.” Suria grinned wryly. “I had to ask. Just a thought. Young Thorius has genius Engineering potential, and Murkuria is taking University-level classes in Genetics. Some Cadets and Yoeites wish they had those kind of smarts.”

“Yes, Geupetus told me.” Siritus sighed, a growl in his tone. “I wish we had thought of this a year or so ago. We could have petitioned, then forced a referendum to change the law, or at least bent it a bit. But it is too late. I am not above the law, Suria. None of us are.”

 “I know that.” Suria lashed her tail. “You can only wait, and hope he agrees. If not, it is not the end of the program.”

 “You are right. I am a silly old Furlite.” Siritus stopped his pacing. “Have you eaten dinner?”

 “No, but it awaits me at home. However,” she said, wishing to extend their conversation, “perhaps a snack and a hot mug of ruscol would do. The drive home is long.”

 “It will be longer tonight.” Siritus glanced out the window. “The storm is intensifying.”

 “That does not worry me. My shuttle handles the storms quite well.” Suria smiled. “And rural driving is far easier than maneuvering in the city, with its multilevel traffic lanes and fool drivers.”

 “Always the optimist. Come, let us get some of Orios’ Guanis steak sandwiches. If my Clan members accept those positions, we will not see my bondbrother’s delectable concoctions in the Mess Hall any longer.”

“Then let us enjoy them while we can,” Siritus urged, as the two left the office.

 

Geupetus strode down the corridor into the lobby, fuming with frustration, barely controlling the desire to lash his thick tail again. If he accepted this job, and, oh, did he want to, the twins would have to stay behind. Anger still burned through his body over Siritus’ refusal.

 “Greetings, Commander!” A cheerful voice interrupted his brooding.

 “Greetings to you, Yoeite Selliara.” Geupetus inclined his head as the young Furlite hurried past him. He took a deep breath as he left the building and headed out into the snow-shrouded evening. As his feet sank into the twenty-plus octas of new snow, he thought of the choices ahead. If he refused, berating himself over a lifetime for giving up the Command of the Octennium[5] loomed ahead as a possible future. Yet, if he accepted, his regret over leaving behind his twins might interfere with his job. Discontent twisted his stomach into undulating knots no matter which way he chose.

 Geupetus reached his vehicle, stilling the tremble in his hand as he curled it under the handle. He fought to control his simmering wrath. Recognizing his fingerprints, the hatch popped open. Geupetus slid into the soft-cushioned driver’s seat, poking his tail through the gap in the seat back. He flicked his talons over the ignition panel, and the little craft came to life. It hummed quietly as he drove out of the parking lot. His foot quivered on the brake pad as he approached the tall gates of the University of Cosmic Sciences. A green laser beam shot out, running over his vehicle, flickering as he spoke his name and rank into the speaker. The portal swung open.

Geupetus turned his craft onto the main thoroughfare, settling in for the long drive home. Accelerating the vehicle, he engaged the air power, and the commuter shuttle rose from the snow, joining the two-layer traffic lanes heading out of the city of Astrolis which lay just northeast of the Complex. He rose into the second level and accelerated, whizzing by the slower traffic beneath him. As the prairie opened up, the lanes diverged in various directions. Traffic cleared, and he dropped to ground level. He sped across the open grasslands, alone on the snowy highway. He took a moment to activate the vidphone, letting his twins know he just left work. He scowled at a winking inbox message light, before returning his attention to the road. He disliked talking while driving, so the message could wait.

 In a mere quat,[6] the prairie merged into forest. Geupetus gave his frustration and disappointment freedom, accelerating the craft over the ancient bridge spanning the sluggish Burstal River. Geupetus permitted the vehicle to stay airborne as it sped along the road. The forest thickened as he traversed deeper into rural Burstal.

 A new Starship awaited its first commander, ready for new traditions to be born. In Geupetus’ mind, the ship called to Clan Darius to own and care for her, far into the future. His anger returned in a rush. Blast, he thought, the twins should be part of this! A tingle of warning interrupted his thoughts. He focused his attention on the road ahead. Mere octafets ahead, a wall of white rippled beyond the thinning trees.

 “Chafk!” The oath burst from his lips as his shuttle broke from the trees onto the broad expanse of flat land which flanked the swift and dangerous Floodland River. The wind howled around the hatches, snatching up the commuter craft like a helpless scrap of paper. Geupetus raced his fingers over the controls, pulling the air power lever down repeatedly.

 “Vutz this thing!” he swore, as his vehicle spun wildly in the wind. Clinging to the steering bar with one hand, he jiggled and worked the handle with the swift instincts of an experienced spacefarer. He barely gave conscious thought to his manipulation of the lever. It obeyed, sliding down until the green digits read 00.0000. The craft dropped to the snow, jarring Geupetus’ muscular body. He grunted as the shuttle rocked to and fro like a small boat for many seconds.

 “What a chafkhead I am,” he muttered to himself, staring through the viewport at the snow swirling out of a dark sky. The dim silhouettes of a herd of Sorsas moved across the mini-prairie, putting distance between themselves and his shuttle.

 “Idiot!” he growled, checking over the craft’s control panel.

 The panel blinked all green. He fumed inwardly, hating his lapse in focus. Geupetus took a deep breath, stretching the muscles in his massive frame, sensing no harm to his body. He shifted his vehicle into gear, ready to put the incident deep into his mind. He guided the vehicle back onto the road, and drove across the ancient bridge that spanned the deep rocky wild river which flooded its steep banks each spring. His shuttle glided smoothly on top of the packed snow. Geupetus glanced over the wall. The river below wove between ice-coated rocks. He left the bridge behind, crossing the far half of the Floodlands without further incident. As he entered the forest, he accelerated, but kept his vehicle in contact with the snow. Suddenly, his foot jammed the brake pad as a group of small bipedal animals flowed onto the roadway. Their large eyes gleamed in the headlamps, and Geupetus noticed the expectant look in their faces.

 “Monii.” He slowed his vehicle, and the animals converged on it. Not much taller than a Furlite toddler, the creatures barely reached the hatch windows. The Monni leaped against the vehicle, peering in with intelligent eyes which looked down blunt muzzles. Their hand claws scrabbled on the hatches. Geupetus sighed. “Not tonight, silly creatures. No time for games.”

The Monii, carnivorous pack animals related to Furlitekind, though wild and free, chose to interact with their cousin species at every opportunity. The creatures enjoyed the dangerous game of playing chase and tag with shuttlecraft. Drivers took it in stride, tolerating the games, as most Furlites respected their related species. Monii readily adapted to captivity, thus injured or orphaned Monii often became cherished pets. Such an orphan joined the Darius household octades ago, becoming a beloved companion. The rest of Geupetus’ anger died under melancholy emotions. He blinked his eyes, forcing the memories back into the deep recesses of his mind, then brought his full attention to his driving. The Monii bounced around and on his vehicle. He picked up speed carefully, gently nosing aside the playful animals, not wishing to hurt any of them.

“Chafk, you silly beasts, give up,” Geupetus grumbled. “I do not need one of you at home. Iggie would go ballistic. Great black holes! Go away.”

Finally, the shuttle broke out of the pack, and Geupetus hit the accelerator. He left the puzzled animals in his snowy wake. He drove deeper into the thickening forest. Red Sepur trees dominated the woodlands, and the needles of those magnificent trees sparkled deep red in his headlamps. Their thick rust-colored trunks lined the roadside. Ahead, the road forked, and he took the narrower trail, where the snow lay deep and loose. His craft slashed a furrow through the drifts. He maneuvered through the center of his home town, and gazed with pride at the familiar buildings. With its ancient town hall and small old structures, Gabbruss appeared a relic of octuries[7] past, but inside each, technology reached out to connect the tiny rural town with the rest of the planet.

 Geupetus drove past the Fundamental School his twins attended. He slowed, noticing the Shartball field lay enshrouded in shadows, with no sign of his children. He glanced at the entrance to a forest path. If the twins decided on taking the short cut home, they would miss their ride. He accelerated the vehicle, twitching his tail as his anxiety returned. He drove slowly, taking another left fork. Still, no sign of his children. He passed one junction, and turned up the second. The road ahead twisted through thick forest. Finally, his keen eyes spotted movement in the headlamps. As he slowed, the four shapes materialized into Furlitian youngsters, not Monii. He smiled with recognition, and brought his vehicle alongside the children.

 

Murkuria met Thorius at the edge of the Shartball field.

“Great practice.” Thorius’ lavender eyes gleamed delight. “I never saw you tackle so rough, or block so savagely. It was great!”

“I hope I did not hurt poor Horasis,” Murkuria smiled weakly.

“Krufk, you hit him really hard. Forced five interceptions, and your blocking gave Selarus all the time in the world to throw. He tossed for seven goals! Hope we can play like that in the State Championships,” Thorius guffawed, and walked toward the forest path, glancing up the road. He peeked at his timepiece, which read 08:04. “It is eight minutes into the fourth hour.[8]

“Father said he would be late in a message on my notebook phone. He is a half quat overdue,” Murkuria commented, relief momentarily easing her anxiety. “Let us walk. Father should catch up to us.”

“I got the message, too.” Thorius turned around. “If he is too late, we will beat him home, even going the long way around.”

The twins started down the road as the lights for the field shut down. Both kicked snow with their feet, in a subconscious competition.

 “Do you understand the Mathematics homework?” Murkuria asked, lashing up a cloud of snow with a grunt.

 “Not all of it,” Thorius grunted back, after a poor kick. “But I think Elara can help me with it. Do you get it?”

 “Most of it.” Murkuria kicked, nearly falling backwards. She lashed her thick tail, gouging a wide furrow in the snow as she righted herself. “I think Elara can help both of us, especially if we are confused by the same parts.”

 “Did you decide on a topic for Astronomy class?” he asked. “What a chafkhead I am,” Thorius sputtered through a clod of snow he kicked into his face.

 “Yes, I did.” Murkuria ignored his swearing, trying not to giggle. “I plan to do mine on the formation of sun systems. What about you?”

 “I am not sure, but maybe on the life cycle of a star.” Thorius continued to brush the snow from his furry face and chest.

 “That is a good choice.” Murkuria smiled as her perfect kick sent snow spraying over her head. She imagined the clod as Kutius’ head.

 “Murkuria?” Thorius hesitated. “I heard you had a fight at school today.” He kicked halfheartedly, showering snow over his chest.

 “YES! Yes, I did!” Murkuria kicked so forcefully that snow covered her. “I did!” She halted, facing her brother.

 “Is it true you started it?” Thorius raised both golden furry brows, astonished at the anger flaring in his sister’s amber eyes. Even in the dim twilight, they flashed golden fire. “Is that why you were so, so aggressive at practice?”

 “Yes!” Murkuria nearly snarled the answer.

 “But why? You never challenge anyone to wrestling bouts. Why did you start a real fight!”

 “I did not really start it, but I finished it!” Murkuria spat. “That disgusting lump of matted fur deserved everything! He is a true krufkhead, chafkhead, a real lortz-up! A vachok!”

 “What did he do?” Thorius asked, astounded at her anger. “And who is the vachok?”

 “Who else but that chafkhead Kutius! That ugly fat slob in our Math class.” Murkuria sputtered in loathing. “During the recreation period, I saw him bullying poor little Tria again.”

Murkuria recounted the tale, outrage flaring free, taking delight in the anger kindling in her brother’s eyes. She smirked suddenly.

 “You should have seen his scared face. He will not forget today. I was so mad. I hope I hurt him when I tore his disgusting hair out. He wailed like a baby in front of everyone. I loved it.”

 “He deserved it, all of it. I would have loved to have seen it. Is Tria all right?”

 “She had a leg bruised and cut, but is otherwise all right. The School Doctor sent her home anyway. I told her that Grandfather would check her notebook and repair any damage. I know Grandfather will not mind. I am glad I pummeled him. Just because Tria is a slow learner does not mean he can pick on her.”

 “Did you get into trouble?”

 “Well, the Disciplinary Officer stopped the fight, or I might have beat Kutius to death. He is such a Dokit turd. The School Physician cleaned up my cuts, and I went back to class.”

 “Do they hurt?”

 “Not really. Well, just a little.”

 “Was the Officer mad at you?”

 “He approved my defense of Tria, and said there would be no further action against me.”

 “Will they tell Father and Mother?”

 “They have to, and may have already, but I plan to tell them first.”

 “WHAT!” Thorius grabbed her hand, shaking her arm. “Are you crazy! You know how they feel about fighting! They always tell us . . . ”

 “I do not care. I was right to use my size and strength to help someone. They will see that. Why wait and worry until the school tells them? I just hope Father ignores his shuttlephone tonight.”

 “Good point, and he always does until he gets home.” Thorius dropped her hand, and resumed walking. “What happened to Kutius?”

 “Expelled, I heard.” Murkuria walked, kicking snow. A clod hit her in the chest, covering her exposed gashes. She hissed, brushing the snow off, then pulled her fur over the spot. “This is not the first time he has been suspended. He is so stupid.”

 “Indeed,” Thorius nodded. He searched his mind for a change of subject, weary of talking about trouble. He drew a deep breath. “Have you decided on your free project for this year?”

 “Yes!” Murkuria forgot kicking snow, forgot her fight. Her amber eyes lit up like sparklers during a Cinth of Independence Festival. “I plan to do a report on winged mammalians, and illustrate each, with all sorts of anatomical drawings and full-color paintings. I plan to include detailed text on their life cycles and genetics. I wish we had free projects all the time.”

 “I agree. Your project sounds hard.” Thorius shook his head. Imagining where to start and research such, then piecing it together and illustrating it, boggled his mind. Though with a straight edge he laid down blueprints with the best of them, and executed flawless work on a computer, he possessed little skill at free-hand drafting. His best efforts looked like scribble compared to his sister’s superb renderings. “I could not do that. Nobody can free draft as well as you.”

 “Thank you!” Murkuria beamed under her brother’s praise, appreciating his sincerity. She suddenly regained her manners, sensing the excitement that glimmered in his eyes. “Have you decided on yours yet?”

 “Yes. I plan to design and build a working scale model of a starship.”

 “Really?!” Murkuria stumbled in mid-kick. “But true starships do not yet exist! We do not know even if the interplanetary ships adapted for star flight have succeeded yet! We should soon.”

 “True, but I know they are designing one!”

 “One what?” Murkuria scowled. “Not a starship. You are pulling my tail!”

 “Well, I accidentally slipped in a disk Grandfather left home one day. Murkuria, you should have seen it -- it was blueprints of a real starship!”

 “Are you sure?” Murkuria frowned. “Was Grandfather mad at you for looking at it?”

 “He does not know. I peeked quickly, then put it back, just as he returned for it. But it was awesome. So different from even the Sauri!”

 “Did the disk say it was a real starship?”

 “Well, no. The disk was one of two, but the schematics! The engines were on it! Wow! I will make my own blueprints from what I remember. It will be fun!”

 “Is that not copying, stealing an idea?”

 “I guess, in a way, but how can I copy when I only got a peek? It will still be a great project! Perhaps, soon, Grandfather and Father will tell us about it. They must know all about it.”

 “I already told all my teachers I cannot wait to enter the SFEP!” Murkuria sighed dreamily.

 “You did that, too?” Thorius lifted a brow in surprise. “Do you think you can handle the extra workload?”

 “Yes! Of course!” Murkuria’s dreamy expression vanished, and her eyes glowed with indignation. “Why do you even ask? Do you think I am not smart enough?! My instructors are giving me advanced lessons, yet I still finish first! I am at ninth term level now in most Sciences.” Murkuria puffed proudly. “In Genetic studies and Free Drafting, I am at University level!”

 “You are? Ooops, I mean, of course, you are. Same with me, in Engineering and Blueprint Drafting.” Thorius grinned sheepishly. Mistake! Never ever question Murkuria’s intelligence. “Though many children find the Program hard, we will not. Both of us are smart enough.”

 “That is no lie, and never forget, it is both of us!”

 “I am sorry. I guess I have not realized you are keeping up with me.” Thorius smiled broadly. “I feel proud to have you as my sister, especially after what you did to Kutius.”

 “Thank you.” Murkuria nodded, her frown of anger fading. “I cannot wait for us to be chosen as Cadets, and maybe get on Aunt Suria’s ship. It is too bad Father is no longer a Ship Commander. According to what I hear, he was the best.”

 “I have heard that, too. I wonder why Elara is not yet a Cadet? She excels in the Program, and is nineteen now. Father has even commented on how well she has done.”

 “She says nothing, but it bothers her when eighteen-year-olds are chosen, yet she is not. Even when Trius . . . ” Murkuria turned her head. “Someone is coming”

 Thorius turned also, forgetting the conversation. Out of the swirling snow trotted two Furlites, kicking up snow with their quick steps. Both youngsters recognized their older sister immediately by the dark russet patches that spotted her short white fur. They also recognized her friend, their next-door neighbor Kanus, by his long predominantly-russet fur, and the white spot over his right eye. They waited for the two to catch up.

 “Hello, Elara!” they called in unison. “Hello, Kanus!”

 “Hello!” both older children responded.

 “Murkuria,” Kanus smiled, taking Murkuria’s hand. “I want to thank you for defending my sister today against that ch -- bully.”

 “I would do it again, gladly.” Murkuria frowned. “You heard about it already?”

 “Yes, I was the one who picked her up from school. Mother could not get away from her work at that moment.”

 “Oh. Is she doing all right?”

 “Yes, she is fine. Before I went back to school, she was playing her wind instrument.”

 “Oh, her vlu.” Murkuria smiled. “She plays it so well, and sings so beautifully, too.”

 “Kanus,” Thorius broke in, “if you took Tria home, where is your shuttle?”

 “My brother has it. I told him I could walk home.” Kanus grinned wickedly. “He has an appointment with a pretty female who lives further up Forest Road. He dropped Elara and me at the bottom of Sunip Ridge.”

 “Oh,” Thorius shrugged. “I forget that you share it.”

“He needs it for commuting to the Space Center. I hope they pick me soon for Cadet,” Kanus lamented.

“They will, soon,” Elara said softly, quelling concern of her own.

“Is Trius on a ship yet?” Thorius asked suddenly.

 “Why all the questions?” Elara protested indignantly. “I doubt you forget anything.”

 “Trying tact.” Thorius glanced at his sister, noting the flare of annoyance in her aqua eyes. He flicked his tail. “Well, I will be direct then. Kanus, how are you doing since your big brawl?”

 “I am fine,” Kanus chuckled in good humor. “The idiot who attacked me is banished to the Sapphrus Mountains. He will be cut off from civilization for a cinth. Hopefully, he will learn to appreciate society by wallowing in deep snows alone for nineteen days.”

 “I wish they could do that to Kutius,” Murkuria muttered.

 “They cannot punish children that way,” Elara replied. “But the fool deserves it.”

 The four youngsters walked for a bit in silence, until Murkuria realized Preparatory School had let out two quats ago, long before Shartball practice ended.

 “El-ar-a?” Murkuria drawled out her sister’s name. “Why are you so late?”

 “Kanus and I went to the Gamehouse after school,” Elara answered. “How was practice?”

 “Great! You should have seen Murkuria play defense! She . . . ” Thorius answered, only to have Murkuria cut his answer short.

 “Elara! You went to the Gamehouse?! Where the brawl was? Do Father and Mother know?”

 “Of course they do.” Elara scowled, a stern set to her jawline. “I would not lie. One should never lie. I am old enough. I am over eighteen, remember?”

 “Did you drink shistus?” Murkuria pried.

 “Of course not!” Elara laughed. “I am far from twenty-three! What is with the interrogation tonight? Why do you not save that for Father?”

 The hum of an approaching shuttle silenced their conversation. The four moved quickly off the road. The familiar vehicle slowed, halting beside the group. The driver popped open the passenger hatch, and the youngsters, with various degrees of delight, greeted the enormous, powerfully-built, white and gold long-furred owner of the vehicle.

 “Father!” Thorius cried, echoed by Murkuria.

 “Hello, Father,” Elara reacted quietly.

 “Hello, Commander,” Kanus nodded respectfully.

 “Hello, children.” Geupetus smiled broadly. “How have you been, Kanus? We have not seen much of you lately.”

 Kanus flashed a worried look at Elara, and Elara gave him a gentle nudge.

 “Do not worry,” she whispered in his ear. “He knows nothing of the brawl, but he will see it was not your fault.”

 

 The four youngsters crammed themselves into the commuter shuttle. Geupetus waited patiently. After they settled noisily onto the small rear cushions, he closed the hatch and resumed driving. He drove barely a octafet when the questions bombarded his ears.

 “Father,” Murkuria grunted, yanking her tail from under her brother’s foot. She spotted the blinking message light and hurriedly went on. “What is going on at the Complex? Is there a new ship?”

 “Ship?” Geupetus pretended ignorance, engaging the air power. The shuttle picked up speed. Geupetus raised a brow. How much did the children perceive?

 “Yes,” Elara pressed. “We have heard rumors a new ship was built.”

 “Have you now?” Geupetus raised his other brow.

“You must know something, Father!” Elara pulled a strap on her backsack.

 Geupetus feigned indifference. “What have you heard?”

 “All sorts of stories,” Thorius answered. “I even heard it may be a starship!”

 “Do not be ridiculous!” Elara laughed, cuffing her brother across his shoulder. “Where did you hear that? I only heard a new ship was built – bigger, faster, yes – but capable of interstellar flight? I do not think so.”

 “It is so,” Thorius argued. “I know all about the experimental interstellar voyages. Those ships went interstellar with the crew in stasis, but they are not true starships. They have smaller engines than the Sauri does, and are called Sleeper Ships. The oldest, Voziak, is pathetically slow, with obsolete engines. It may still be sailing out there.”

“It was launched 225 years ago.[9] What would you expect?” Murkuria commented.

“So it is not truly interstellar with such weak engines, but the new ship, wow, has unbel -- ” Thorius closed his mouth with an audible snap.

 “What are you saying?” Elara spun to face him, brows furrowed with suspicion. “What do you know about this?”

 “I just heard the new ship has super-powerful engines,” Thorius answered serenely.

 “I know you know more than that,” Elara retorted. “I can feel it.”

 “Well, children,” Geupetus chuckled, forestalling any argument. “You heard correctly. There is a new ship. I will tell you about it at home.”

 The conversation behind him grew lively. He heard Thorius mention a wayward disk, as Elara wheedled information out of him. Careless, Father, Geupetus thought, amused. So, Thorius caught a glimpse of the  Sunpyne’s schematics. With his Engineer’s mentality, the young one obviously suspected the truth. Geupetus smiled as the debate raged behind him. Elara pried, asking questions, arguing every detail, and Thorius argued back, defending his point of view. Geupetus thought of the decision ahead, and the mirth drained from his body. His affirmative answer teetered on the tip of his tongue, but if Nethunia refused, her negative decision would override his affirmative. He imagined himself sitting in retirement, warm in the sun on a lawn cushion, regretting that long-ago day when he let the opportunity of a lifetime slide through his talons. The image knotted his guts. He listened to the lively chatter, so raucous, so full of joy. What would a yes vote do to these happy children? He wished a solution to this dilemma existed, one that satisfied both problems. He sighed, unable to conceive a single viable option.

 Geupetus stopped his inner brooding as he maneuvered the shuttlecraft further up the winding road. The trees arched over the narrow lane, darkening it with a thick canopy of needled branches. Tracts of woodland separated the few homes they passed. A few furrows marked the minimal passing of traffic. Shortly, light glimmered through the trees and snowfall, and Geupetus turned the vehicle towards the warm glow. He guided the craft up the drive toward the light, which materialized into the wide front window of a massive stone house. Home, Geupetus thought, finally home. The chatter behind him rose.

 “Grandfather is cooking.” Thorius peered past Geupetus. “Dinner will be super tonight!”

 “Indeed,” Elara agreed. “I am hungry, too.”

 “Everyone is home,” Murkuria commented. Geupetus parked the craft in the family’s shuttle hangar, noticing that all the other family vehicles already sat inside the structure.

 “Yes, we are the last to arrive. It does seem like dinner will be excellent.” Geupetus shut down the craft’s engine. “Go on inside. I will be in as soon as I secure this vehicle and the hangar.”

 

 Elara hoisted her sagging backsack, then stepped out of the craft. Kanus stepped past her, walking out of the shuttleport.

 “Good night, Elara!” he called back cheerfully, then broke into a run. Elara turned and waved. Her farewell greeting stuck in her throat. The snow swirled across the shuttlepath, and Kanus’ figure appeared to change. His dark russet fur lightened, then lengthened, and Elara swallowed convulsively. He followed the same path that Tes . . . Elara shivered. NO! DO NOT think that name! NO! She closed her eyes, concentrating with all her discipline to shut the painful memories from her mind. She struggled to purge them from her. Why? Why did these memories haunt her again? The last time Kanus left her house, to run to his home next door, the same illusion occurred.

 “Elara?”

 Elara started, and gazed into the concerned amber eyes of her younger sister. She sensed Murkuria’s worry. Thorius stared at his sisters in pure confusion.

 “I am fine.” Elara forced a smile, willing the memories down and away. She concentrated, squashing the depression before it mushroomed. “I will beat you to the door!”

 Elara kicked up a glittering shower of snow, and rocketed from the hangar. Murkuria stood a moment, gazing after her. Something troubled Elara, that much she knew, but what? Thorius suddenly bumped her.

 “Come on! She has a head start!”

 Murkuria forgot her worry. With a laugh, she raced after her brother and sister. The three youngsters plowed through the deep snow, ignoring the cleared walkway. Elara skidded up to the door, her toe claws scrabbling on the ice. She deftly opened the door with barely a break in her stride. She stumbled into the foyer, and regained sure footing. The twins hit the ice, and their skid brought out uproarious laughter from both. They slid over the threshold and smashed into Elara. All three tumbled to the wet slate in a big furry heap.

 “Hey!” Elara extricated herself from the tangle of limbs and tails, rubbing her shoulder. The twins scrambled to their feet.

 “Sorry,” they apologized in unison. At that moment, a squealing, squawking ball of white fur darted into the foyer on blurred white wings.

 “Iggie!” Murkuria cried, and the feisty furball landed in the crook of Murkuria’s elbow., digging in all four sets of claws for balance. Murkuria stroked the Matissia’s back as Iggie chirped a greeting, furling her strong wings. Her large green eyes glowed as she pricked up her big furry ears. Murkuria smiled.

 “Did you behave today, Iggie?” The little beast chittered, then faced Elara, and opened her long muzzle, uttering a loud squawk. Elara chuckled, and gave Iggie a scratch behind one ear. The animal crooned loudly. Elara took her hand away and faced the soft, mint-green interior of her home. All activity ceased as the other family members stared at them. Their grandparents, Isea and Orios, shook their heads, amused smiles on their faces. Aunt Ara laughed openly, breaking the silence. Quick footfalls in the hall attracted their attention. Their mother Nethunia strode into the room.

 “What under the triple . . . ” She stopped when she spotted her children in the foyer. She slowed her stride to a sedate walk, masking her annoyance. “Greetings, Young Ones! I hope all of you had good days.”

 “Fine.” Thorius shook the snow from his dripping fur. “Practice was great! Coach was happy.”

 “Good practice.” Murkuria pulled a wad of slushy snow from her tail, then tossed it at the door. Iggie launched herself from Murkuria’s arm, attacking the slush with gusto. Murkuria peered across the room, and exhaled relief. No incoming message light blinked on the main console.

 “Good. I hope your team wins the State title.” Nethunia smiled, amused at Iggie’s confusion as the snowball turned to a puddle. “Do not forget to wipe your feet and dry up for dinner.”

 “We will win State, Continent, and World titles,” Thorius answered. “Is anyone using the console?”

 “I am sure you will.” Nethunia smiled. “The console is free now, but later I am sure your Father will need it. You may play games after dinner on the terminal in your room.”

 “Can we play games before dinner?” Thorius asked. “The screen out here is better.”

 “Yes, but do not forget your lesson work.”

 “We will not.” The twins hastily rubbed their wet feet dry with a pair of towels from the colorful array hanging on the foyer wall. Both wiped down their coats with equal haste, rehung the wet towels on the rack, clicked on a button that started a dryer nozzle above the towels, then dashed into the Common Room to seat themselves before the enormous computer console on the far wall. They quickly stowed their backsacks on a shelf under the console. Iggie winged after Murkuria and landed beside her, fascinated, as always, by the colorful, fast-moving images on the big screen. Nethunia eyed Murkuria briefly. The child radiated pent-up anxiety. Nethunia turned her attention to Elara. Concern nipped her as she sensed an undercurrent of depression from her daughter. Nethunia hoped the busy day would turn to a calm evening. She wished to pry into her daughters’ problems and solve them as soon as possible.

 “How was your day?”

 “Good. Kanus and I went to the Gamehouse after school.” Elara busily wiped her feet, attending each toe carefully.

 “You know I am not crazy about that place, Daughter.”

 “It is not bad, really it is not. We stayed in the Fun Room. The adults cannot drink shistus in there, so they stay out.”

 “That is true, most of the time, but that place seems to attract irresponsible people who care not to control their shistus drinking.”

 “Everyone from school goes there to play games and socialize. No one ever causes trouble.” Elara stood up. “We had no trouble at all today.”

 “I know you would not cause trouble but . . .” The door opened, and Nethunia shifted her gaze. Her spouse entered the foyer, shaking the snow from his very long predominantly-white coat.

“By the triple moons,” she murmured under her breath, “that man gets so wooly in winter.” The extra hair gave him the illusion of unbelievable size on top of his true huge build. Nethunia walked over to him as Elara sauntered past her into the kitchen.

 “Greetings.” She embraced him. “Glad you are home. Long day, has it not been?”

 “Very long.” He wiped his feet. “I do need to relax, but I have news that concerns all of us.”

 Nethunia frowned, catching his inner turmoil.

 “Nothing is wrong with the ship, is there?”

 “Nothing,” he smiled.

“Are we all ready to eat?” A call from Orios silenced everyone for a few moments. Orios stood, pride in his emerald eyes, his entire silver-white gold-patched body radiating delight. The family moved to the dining table, everyone taking their accustomed places. The tableware glistened in an array of rich intricate colors, belying their sturdy rugged acrylic-glass composition. Iggie circled over the table in excitement, but a sharp hand gesture from Murkuria sent her to her own bowl. She whined a protest, but obeyed promptly, then crooned approval at her bowl’s steaming contents. Orios served his preparations, with Ara helping out. As he and Ara sat down, everyone filled their plates with Guanis steaks, Gurt roots, a few leafy vegetables, and bowls of steaming organ meats. Elara listened to the clanking dishware, and wondered if she should tell of Kanus’ brawl.

 “Elara?” Nethunia broke the silence. “How is Kanus?”

 “Kanus?!” Elara jerked her head up, food tine poised in mid-air. Her mother’s abilities still unsettled her, even after a lifetime of experience with them.

 “Yes, Kanus. He was in a Gamehouse brawl a few days ago.” Nethunia’s stern tone froze Elara in place. She forgot her food.

 “BRAWL?!” erupted from everyone, except the twins, who exchanged worried glances.

 “Oh, yes, that brawl.” Elara regained her composure. “He is fine now.”

 “Kanus? He was in a fight?” Geupetus queried, his brows furrowing in sharp disapproval.

 “He is so well-mannered.” Isea’s violet eyes flared, and her curt tone reflected disbelief.

 “It was not his fault, Grandmother.”

 “I should hope not,” Isea’s voice rose, “but what could make such a well-mannered boy fight like a savage from long-gone tribal days?”

 “He is NOT a barbarian, Grandmother!” Elara retorted sharply. Inexplicably, her limbs trembled. She lowered her utensil, morsel uneaten, regretting the outburst immediately. The twins gaped in astonishment at her disrespectful tone to her grandmother. The surprise in Isea’s dark violet eyes swiftly changed to anger. Her silvering gold face frowned, and her white chin fur bristled.

 “I did not call Kanus a barbarian, Elara. I said, ‘LIKE a savage’. There is a difference,” Isea reprimanded sternly. “I am not one to pass such harsh judgments. I am sure Kanus had good reason to fight. One must defend oneself.”

 “I am sorry,” Elara whispered. She tried to stop her trembling. Why had she reacted so? She liked Kanus, but not as bondpartner, nor even as best friend. Somehow, tonight, Kanus’ image jumbled with images of her long-gone best friend, Tes . . . She shook her head violently. NO! She fought the wave of sorrow and grief with tremendous strength of will. She lowered her eyes, ignoring the sudden concern in her mother’s expression, staring at the ornate edge of her aquamarine plate. She studied the play of the light in the glass alloy.

“Uh oh,” she whispered under her breath, “Mother senses something. This will not get me, no.”

“What?” Isea asked, while the rest of the family stared at her.

Elara squashed the last emotion down, and, raising her head, faced her grandmother. “I am sorry. I spoke without thinking.”

 “It is forgiven.” Isea’s expression softened. “Please, continue your story.”

 “Well, we were in the Fun Room, playing games. Just as I won the Star Warrior game, an older Furlite came to the room. Kanus stood in the doorway, challenging me to a match. I suppose the idiot thought Kanus spoke to him. He was nearly Father’s size, but carried more, well, shall I say, superficial weight.” A wan smile trembled Elara’s lips. “The moron roared, ‘You dare challenge me?’ startling all of us. He acted like a child in a wrestling bout. He charged Kanus, knocking him down, and slashing his shoulder open.”

 “Blast the chafkhead!” Orios swore, ignoring a disapproving stare from his spouse. “Is the young one all right?”

 “Yes, he is fine now. But the fool went crazy, coming after Kanus when he was down.”

 “What was Kanus’ response?” Geupetus asked, all disapproval gone from his voice.

 “He had to fight back. Thankfully, Kanus is very quick. He jumped up and defended himself, keeping clear of the fool long enough so that a few adults playing Pillisk rendered him immobile. He was so inebriated he tripped over his own talons. He made a complete Sorsa’s ass, oops, sorry, idiot of himself.” Elara gazed at her father. “Kanus did not slash the idiot once. I do not think I would have been so controlled.”

 “Anyone would feel the same,” Ara muttered, her parti-color dark gold and white coat undulating down her body.

 “Nor would I have been,” Geupetus agreed with a chuckle, but Elara picked up a spike of intense anxiety from her father. It vanished like a popped bubble, so she pushed her concern away.

 “I cannot understand what makes some Furlites act like barbaric primitives when they drink too much shistus,” Nethunia said sternly. “Do you see, Elara, why I do not care for you to spend time at that place? He might have attacked you.”

 “Yes, that is true.” Elara frowned. “But I am bigger than Kanus. The idiot knew enough to pick on a smaller person. But that is not the norm, Mother. It usually is very quiet there. We need a place besides school to go and socialize, to meet others from different schools, to meet potential mates, to have fun.”

 “You have a point, Daughter.” Nethunia smiled gently. “I sometimes forget that most of us do not bond early in childhood, like your father and I did.”

 

 Murkuria listened to the conversation, with growing confidence in her decision to defend Tria today against Kutius. The slimepot slashed her first, and though she beat him good, she cut him not once. At a lull in the talk, she drew in a deep breath, and then blurted out her news.

 “Since you all will find out soon enough, I must tell you I had a fight at school today.”

 A hush fell over the table. Not one utensil clinked a dish. Her father’s volatile purple eyes flashed sudden outrage, and alarm rose with it, stabbing into Murkuria. She sensed his inner turmoil, but did not comprehend it. Stern admonishment radiated from her mother, though Nethunia’s face did not change. Both grandparents frowned at Murkuria.

 “Murkuria! How shameful!” Ara broke the utter silence with a reprimand.

 “I did not start it!” She kept her voice firm, controlling the guilt that threatened her even tone. “That rotten Kutius was bullying Tria again, and this time he shoved her.” Murkuria hurried on with the story, telling it much the same as she had to Thorius, but this time carefully omitting the swear words. To her relief, the family’s dismay and disapproval faded. Her father’s odd mix of anger, deep grief, and alarm dissipated. “The school Disciplinary Officer told me I was right to help Tria. The school said they would call you about this,” she finished, glancing around the table.

 “Indeed, you were right, Daughter,” Nethunia agreed. “The school did call. I am proud you told us right away.”

“So the school left that message on my shuttlephone?” Geupetus grumbled. “And called here, too? It is not as if you almost killed someone.”

Nethunia glanced at Geupetus, and raised a brow. Murkuria sensed annoyance and some deep shame from her father, and shivered with incomprehension.

 “What an idiot child Kutius is,” Ara erupted. “He is always in trouble.”

 “Why is Kutius so obnoxious?” Murkuria faced her mother.

 “I cannot say for certain, but lack of discipline would be a good guess. I know he has no learning disabilities like young Tria, so he has brains.”  Nethunia frowned. “His parents are to blame.”

 “What of poor Tria? She is so good-hearted,” Ara asked. “Could something like this hurt her? I mean, will she stay extroverted enough to bond one day?”

 “You would think of such a thing,” Nethunia laughed. “She should have no troubles, with her strong family to guide her. Remember, a very difficult birth caused her problems, not genetic influence. She should be fine.”

 “What about Kutius?” Ara frowned. “He will be old enough for sex soon. He does not deserve it.”

 “How disgusting, Aunt Ara!” Murkuria burst out, forgetting her anxieties. She giggled. “Who would want to TOUCH him, let alone do funny things with him! Yeeeuccck!”

 The entire group erupted into raucous laughter. Murkuria grinned, pleased she managed to make her mother laugh heartily.

 “Mother,” she asked, as the mirth quieted, “how else can they punish Kutius properly? They did suspend him from school, which for anyone else would be a horrible disgrace, but he actually was happy! What is his problem? Do his parents not care?”

 “That, Daughter, is precisely the problem,” Geupetus commented.

 “Your father is correct.” Nethunia gave Geupetus a nudge for interrupting her reply. “It is the family’s responsibility to see that children are taught the right values. Respect, both ways, should be there, and the curiosity and desire to learn must be nurtured. He is obviously out of control, and, for him, it may be too late.”

 “He is an only child, though that is no excuse.” Geupetus’ brows drew together.  “His parents left their Clan to live here, alone, with him. Why, I cannot guess, but his mother is quite the obnoxious chafkhead. No doubt she spoiled him badly. It is a shame.”

 “I hope he never bonds,” Ara muttered. “The values he learned should not be passed along.”

 “Enough of this talk,” Geupetus spoke up cheerfully. “I have very important news tonight.”

 All eyes turned toward him. Confusion and questions registered on all faces.

 “As many people have suspected,” Geupetus glanced at Thorius, “there is indeed a new ship at the Complex.” He held up a hand, silencing the sudden muttering among his children. “And, yes, Thorius, the Sunpyne is a true Starship. It is capable of speeds just under the speed of light, making it a true interstellar vessel.” Geupetus smiled at Orios. “Thanks, Father, for leaving that disk home. Swift you were to retrieve it, but not before prying eyes peeked at it. Anyway, the rest of you are well aware of the ship, so this is the news. I was offered Command of the Starship Sunpyne today.”

 The dining area silenced. Nobody moved a muscle, and all jaws hung slack. Isea and Orios moved in unison, facing each other, similar memories flashing between their eyes.

“It has been too long since anyone in this family did what they truly deserve to do,” Isea murmured. “And that is space work.”

 “On top of that . . . ” Geupetus continued, “Fleet Commander Siritus is of the opinion that our Clan should crew this ship.” He retrieved his satchel, removed the envelopes Siritus had given him, and handed them down the table. The copper and black embossed logo of the Space Center flashed glossy on the cream-colored paper of the envelopes and letters. Only the twins received nothing. The excitement on their faces turned to anxiety.

 The tearing of paper resounded in the dining area. Food lay untouched as each read his or her papers. Geupetus waited patiently, noticing the twins fidgeting in his peripheral vision. Geupetus scanned each face. Orios read swiftly, his eyes widening, a grin spreading across his silvered features. Isea read slowly, her silvery-gold brow raised skeptically. Then the other brow, silvery-white, rose as well. Ara read her letter, violet eyes wide. Elara read hers, stunned surprise lifting both brows. Her lips moved in silence.

 “Father!” Elara broke the quiet. “I have been accepted as a Cadet! Finally! Now I know why! This is fantastic! I cannot believe they want me for the new Starship!”

 “What an opportunity!” Orios put his letter down. “I suppose they want the head designer out there with the ship. Head Engineer! What music that is to these ears!”

 “I am shocked,” Isea said softly, staring at her page as if it would disappear. “Head Scientist.” She put the paper down, and gazed at Geupetus. “I suppose this explains why Siritus did not ask any of us to come back earlier to active duty.”

 “I did begin to wonder about that myself,” Orios chuckled, delight lighting up his emerald eyes. “Not even a nudge. Come to think of it, was it not shortly after Elara’s problems?” Orios paused, glancing apologetically at his granddaughter. She smiled weakly. “Was it not shortly after that when Siritus came to us with his sketchy blueprints?”

 “Yes, yes, he did,” Geupetus nodded. “No wonder he did not argue when we all asked for leave.” Geupetus turned to Elara. “Seems your incident was well-timed, Daughter.”

 Elara raised a brow, and sighed. Beside her, the twins listened anxiously. Murkuria twitched her tail, completely forgetting her brawl with Kutius. Thorius’ stomach knotted with apprehension.

“We didn’t get any papers,” Thorius whispered to his sister. “Why?”

“Did not,” Murkuria corrected, a tremble in her whisper. “We are under eighteen. We cannot go. We are only twelve. They’ve never allowed children under eighteen in space.”

“They have never,” Thorius retorted, tears in his eyes, his whisper quavering. “Baby.”

“I wish I were a baby. Then I would not understand this,” Murkuria whispered back. She shuddered, and then faced her father.

 “Father? What of Thorius and me?”

 Geupetus looked at his twins, and all exultation drained from him. The dreaded announcement had arrived. The panic in both faces drilled into his heart, but Geupetus steeled himself against those eyes.

 “I was getting to that,” his voice murmured, as soft as Nethunia’s. The table quieted again. “If we take the assignments, you and your brother would have to stay behind, probably with Uncle Cerus and Aunt Eselia, but . . .”

 “We cannot go!? Why, Father?? WHY?!” Thorius interrupted, his voice rising frantically. He looked at Murkuria, but she hid her face in her hands.

 “Son,” Geupetus responded softly, unable to discipline the child for rudeness. “We have not decided yet, but, yes, if we do go, you both must stay behind. It is the law.”

 Thorius knew better than to utter another word of protest. He understood the law. All children of spacefaring people knew it well. He dimly recalled the days when all his family members departed on separate missions. On those rare occasions, the Sauri’s flights, which Geupetus commanded, occurred at the same time as Orios’ trips to the main Lunar Base. Back then, Orios supervised the Lunar Base, with Isea as his Science Officer, a situation which left nobody behind to watch Thorius and his sisters. Off to relatives they went, usually staying at Uncle Cerus’, with their cousins Esurus, Elia, and Ceria. Thorius heaved a silent sigh.

“Thorius, it will not be so bad.” Murkuria took his hand. “We will have fun at Elia and Ceria’s, and by time they come back, we will be Cadets,” Murkuria whispered. Thorius raised his head slowly, bravely, and faced Geupetus.

 “I am sorry for my outburst, Father. Murkuria and I will make you proud. When you come back, we will be Cadets, ready to join your crew.”

 Geupetus stared at his son a long moment, a sudden lump of emotion rendering him speechless. He took a long slow breath.

 “I am sure you will, son, but . . . ” Geupetus paused. “But this journey will be long. By the time we return, you may be Commander of your own ship.”

 Murkuria gaped. Thorius stared, shock in his lavender eyes.

 “Father,” he whispered. “How long?”

 “About twenty-five years.”

 Thorius sat frozen. Murkuria hung her head, staring through her tears at her deep-red water goblet. She quelled the desire to fling it across the room, knowing she would regret it if she broke any of her prized tableware set. A soft cheep announced Iggie’s presence at the table, and Murkuria picked up the Matissia and hugged her. Thorius’ eyes burned, and he lowered his head, his tears dropping on Iggie’s tail. The normally-fastidious animal ignored them, crooning deeper and more urgently.

 “Father.” Elara’s whisper sounded deafening in the strangling silence. “Can they not make an exception to the law this time?”

 “I tried to convince Siritus,” Geupetus sighed. “He was sympathetic, but he would not change his mind. He did have a point. The twins have no Flight Education yet, and are six years below legal age. The separation between us will be inevitable if we go.” Geupetus’ stomach snarled, thinking of Elara’s stunt six years ago. He shivered, shoving the memories down. He did not want to think on it at all. Why she reacted the way she did that night perplexed him, but, thankfully, the nasty event lay in the past. Active duty called, and his whole being longed to answer a resounding ‘Yes!’

 “We must all come to a decision. Siritus wishes to know by tomorrow if possible.”

 Another long silence hung over the table. Everyone finished the meal slowly. Tableware clinked for many minutes. Patiently, Geupetus waited, barely tasting the sumptuous meal his father had cooked, though the Guanis steaks and Gurt roots steamed and sizzled, filling the room with delectable aromas. Murkuria refused to eat, and Geupetus refrained from forcing her, or Thorius, who toyed with the food left on his dark purple plate.

 

Thorius struggled with his despair. A weird paradox spun in his mind, filling him with confusion and grief. To read of it in books excited him, but to think about it as reality shocked his young mind. He nudged Murkuria.

“Twenty-five years! We will be thirty-seven years old, old enough for first Command. How utterly strange. And if the ship travels at near-light speed, the family would age very little.” Thorius whispered as his heart thumped. “When they return, we will be older than Aunt Ara!”

“I know.” Murkuria inhaled a deep sob, responding in a low whisper. “Not only that, but we will grow up while our family misses all the important events in our lives. What if they die out there and never come home? Surely grave dangers lurk beyond our Rochian system.” She met Thorius’ tearing lavender eyes, and trembled.

“Dangers probably do exist out there, and always have.” Thorius choked on a sob. “But our family deserves their positions, especially Elara, who earned hers. I just wish we could go.”

 “I believe we should go.” Orios’ voice startled the twins into silence. “We are spacefarers, after all. It is what we all trained for. It is our obligation, to us, to that new ship.”

 “I agree with my spouse,” Isea spoke up. She glanced at Geupetus. “This ship is meant for you to Command. It is obvious now. You know, too, that is where you are happiest. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I, for one, do not wish to let it get away. Clan Darius should claim the first Starship as its own. Tradition calls us, as it did to our pioneering Clan ancestors who flew the first orbital ship, the first lunar ship, the first interplanetary ship, and the first Sleeper ship.”

 “Mother is right. I, too, wish to accept.” Ara gazed solemnly at her brother. “I belong up there. Outer space is where an Astronomer can study best.”

 Elara glanced at her aunt, nodding agreement. How she dreamed of this all her life! She hated to see the twins hurting, and it brought back memories of that nasty incident. The pain seared with horrible intensity back then, when she and Tes – her mind hiccupped on the name – had only been friends. Elara sighed with confusion. Fleet personnel always left their young children behind with kin. Most behaved quite well, unlike her own irrational conduct six years ago. She fought sudden embarrassment. Why these emotions rose from the past to throttle her like a noose confused her. No answers entered her mind. She controlled the desire to cry.

 “Father,” she asked, on her siblings’ behalf. “Are you sure you cannot change the Fleet Commander’s mind on this?”

 “I tried, Elara,” Geupetus said flatly. “I could do no more.”

 Elara fell silent, knowing his word to be honest and true.

 “Do you wish to accept, Daughter?” Geupetus asked softly, regretting his terse response. Geupetus put down his utensils. He faced Elara, who sat like a stone. “I am sorry to be so curt. I asked Siritus three times. He refused to bend the law. Do you want this? I know you have worked very hard to earn this position. You deserve it, but it is your decision to make.”

 Elara continued to think furiously. What fool would not accept? The twins’ misery tore at her heart. Her whole life, however, revolved around a day such as this. She knew how to answer.

 “Yes, Father. I accept.”

Geupetus then turned to Nethunia, who uttered not a single word the entire meal. He waited.

She sat, stone-still, expressionless, warring with herself internally. The notion of twenty-five years separated from her babies inflamed her maternal instincts. She hated the thought of missing them grow and develop, and battled that selfish wish. Nethunia slowly met her spouse’s gaze. She sensed his deep longing for this job. As a Scientist and Mindmedic, she belonged up there, on the job she trained for all her life. Shivering from head to tail-tip, she leashed her maternal instincts. She purged them from her mind and body with a surge of tremendous strength of will. Her twins, son and daughter of Fleet personnel, once at her parents’ household, should adjust fine.

 “Yes, Geupetus, I accept.” She crinkled her eyes in a half-smile. “It is about time we all get back to what we trained ourselves to do.”

 “It is done,” Geupetus announced, facing the twins. “Murkuria, Thorius, you will stay with your cousins. I know this is very difficult. But they love you as we do, and you will lack for nothing. Just remember how important this is, to all of us, to the entire Clan.”

 The twins sat frozen like statues. Geupetus looked at his parents. “I will give our answer to Siritus tomorrow. We report in seven days to the Complex. You all know the drill.”

 “I do not,” Elara muttered.

 Geupetus chuckled. “Do not worry, Daughter. It is not so bad.”

Elara grimaced in reply.

 

 “Ara, will you please clear the table?” Nethunia asked, and collected the twins, guiding them to the computer console. She dug into Orios’ case, pulling out two disks. Orios nodded approval. As information on the ship filled the screen, both youngsters roused from their depression. Nethunia walked silently back to the dining area as Thorius’ last audible words -- “I told you it was a real one” -- rang in her ears. Loading the washer, Nethunia watched the twins. Both studied the screen with interest, yawning at the same time. Nethunia concentrated on the cleaning at hand, controlling her inner turmoil. Her mind spun with memories of Ara’s excitement, Elara’s joy, Isea’s delight, and Orios’ jubilation, but the exultant glitter in Geupetus’ eyes burned into her psyche. She feared his zest for life might fade forever if she obeyed her instincts, and forced him to give up command for her. She refused to allow that to ever happen. Deep down, Nethunia perceived that the Sunpyne summoned the Clan to fly again. She rejected the worry and the prodding maternal emotion that threatened her Clan’s destiny. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, ready to board that ship and do her job.

[1]  Octa is approximately half an inch or one centimeter in length.

[2]  Octlo is approximately 2.2 pounds or a kilo

[3]  Octafet is approximately three feet or a meter

[4]  An octury is 64 Aroriellian years = 108.8 Earth years.

[5]  An octennium is 512 Aroriellian years, written 1000 in their base eight. Close time-wise to an Earth millennium.

[6] Quat is 1/4th of an Aroriellian hour (octien), and is equivilant to 1.05 earth hours.

[7]  Octury, an Aroriellian century, comprised of 64 years or 8 octades which are 8 years each = 108.8 E.years

[8]  Furlitian clocks read minutes first, hour next. See glossary for more detail.

[9]  225 Aroriellian years are equivalent to 382.5 Earth years.


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