Sample-Part of Chapter One THE FURLITES OF ARORIEL Book I On Matissia Wings
“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 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 athletic saurian body at the pudgy bully, slamming into him, bowling him over into the snow, octafets 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.”
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 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!”
“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 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, 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 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.”
“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
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