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Stars are Lint on the Blanket of God

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Being the captain of a spaceship meant that one had to manage a lot of information and people. Nearly everyone else on board was an expert, a specialist, or both. They would gather and analyze data related to their fields, then report in to him. From there, Claude would figure out what to do, send out orders, and make sure everyone else was working well. It meant knowing the temperaments and personalities of his crew, picking out important data (often about unknown areas of space), knowing the ship Magnus well, and being able to make them all work together. He spent most of his time on the bridge or in his office by the bridge.

Lately, his crew had been unsettled. It was understandable given the last planet they'd surveyed. It had all the signs of an advanced space-faring civilization: organized cities, orbiting satellites, a space port on each of their two moons. But there was no one alive in that whole solar system. The cities and ports were all destroyed. While there were satellites, they were in poor shape and slowly falling back to the surface. There had been enough usable computers to search for what happened and their engineers had been able to crack into the system.

The people called themselves the Tarel and they had destroyed themselves. They had retained tribal pride that reveled in warfare, advancing their technology with competitive zeal. Approximately fifty years ago, five different tribes had boasted of conquering other worlds or stealing them from other tribes. Then a sixth tribe sent a computer virus to destroy the spaceships of the others, then set off a whole network of explosive missiles to destroy civilization upon their own homeworld. The leader of that sixth tribe had left a boastful video behind about how he was an avatar of their god of destruction, had extinguished their whole race as proof, and then set off a suicide collapse of the security bunker his group had used to survive the apocalypse they'd inflicted.

As many worlds were in Milky Way, it had still seemed unthinkable that any civilization would see glory in destroying themselves. But this proved again that anything was possible in the universe. A number of the crew had been disturbed at the Tarel homeworld. Currently, Claude was most worried about if there were survivors of the Tarel. Magnus could defend itself, but it wasn't a ship specialized for combat. Not only that, but he'd allowed his crew to bring family members along. These treks could take years and while it helped the crew to have a community, it meant that they had a number of untrained civilians along. They had children on the ship as well.

Keep exploring even though it was getting riskier, or head back to a safer area that they weren't as likely to run into Tarel survivors? The crew had accepted the risks in bringing their family members along, even himself. But there was acceptable risks and foolish risks. What should be his plans forward?

"Finally done with these reports," he said to himself, then stretched his arms. "Man, no wonder Dad insisted on going on scouting missions. All this office work gets to be too much." There was a knock at his door; a glance at the security window revealed who it was, which made him smile. "Come in."

Once the door slid open, a young blue-haired girl ran in. "Daddy! Are you off work yet?"

"Sorry Lucy, my day's not even half over," Claude said, closing a few pages on his computer. Then he picked up his daughter and put her in his lap. "You can work with me for a little while if you want."

She grinned at that. "Okay! What are we doing?" She then turned to one of the monitors with a serious expression.

Smiling, he gestured to another monitor that held a long-distance video towards the location they were carefully observing. "There's this station we're watching; it wasn't built by any civilization we've met. But we've read about them before, the Laputa." According to their Tarel masters, the Laputa were foolishly religious and laughably weak.

"Where are their docks?" Lucy asked. She was used to Federations space stations which clearly marked the dock entrance.

"We're not sure," Claude said, causing the image to rotate. "They're all closed up as far as we can tell, but there is activity going on there."

"Oh, they're hiding in their shell like a turtle does," she said, nodding to her own explanation. "Maybe they're scared that somebody mean will come along and try to eat them."

"That could be," he said. He couldn't imagine the Tarel treating those under them well, not with their love of violence. That was another reason to leave. But they weren't done exploring this region of space, not to their projected range. Back when he'd given the proposal for this mission, though, they hadn't know what they would find out here.

"But we don't eat people," Lucy said. "We can go up to them nicely and ask them to be friends. Or we can go back home so we can go to a zoo and see the turtles. We should do that."

Claude laughed. "I'll keep that advice in mind. We're thinking about if we should try to talk with them."

Then Rena appeared in the doorway. "Lucy, you weren't supposed to leave my side," she said.

"I didn't go far, just to see Daddy," she said, leaning back into him.

"But I told you not to leave my side since we were coming onto the bridge," Rena said sternly. Lucy looked up at him.

"You should listen to your Mom and stick with her when she says so," Claude said to her, making her pout. "Especially since you're here on the bridge when everyone is busy. You don't like people interrupting when you're doing something like your studies, right?"

"No, cause I need to finish them," Lucy admitted.

"It's the same way here." He patted her head. "I just got done with something, so it was okay now. But stay with her next time."

"Okay, I'm sorry," she said. "Can we keep helping you?"

"Not for much," Claude said, checking the time. Based on how far they were from the closed up station, how they'd need to approach carefully to not appear as threatening… "Have you had lunch yet?"

"No," Lucy said.

"Right, I needed to check with some of the crew members here," Rena said. She was trained now as a ship medic and counselor, so she had spoken with many of them about what they'd found on the Tarel homeworld. "Do you have time to have lunch with us?"

"I need to do a few more things, but I can join you in about ten minutes," Claude said. "Maybe a bit more; I should have time to join you. Would you go ahead and get something ready at our quarters?"

"Okay!" Lucy said, hopping off his lap.

"Sure, but first, here." Rena handed him a folded note. "We'll see you soon then."

As they headed out, Claude hoped he could keep his word. He knew that situations could change rapidly. Like if the Laputa, or whoever was in the station now, noticed them approaching and wanted to contact them immediately. One of the other officials could handle it, but some people and societies preferred hearing from a ship's leader. He could understand his father better, for why he often didn't keep his word, but he didn't want to be fully like him.

Rena's note turned out to be something she wouldn't want to say in front of their daughter. 'There are a lot of mixed feelings I'm hearing from many members of the crew on how they want to proceed. They don't like the idea of giving up on our journey early, but even those without children on board are worried about continuing into Tarel territory with the children along. A decision on that soon would help. I know it's a tough call, since it's still uncertain if the Tarel are around. But some people get anxious continuing without being sure if we're going to finish this or not.'

It was tough. If they knew for certain that there were Tarel survivors, the choice was clearly for abandoning the mission. But it wasn't certain. There might indeed be no survivors, in which case they'd be at normal risk for finishing up their intended route. There might be survivors and they were at great risk. And if he abandoned this mission, what would the Federation think of it? It could be detrimental to all of their careers to do so. The Federations should understand, but it could still work against them.

He'd barely got started on the next set of orders when a video message came in from the communications officer on the bridge. "Sir, we've got an incoming message in a Federations format. It's being given in English and Expellian, supposedly from one Dr. Nuemann?"

"I might know her, what's the message?" Claude asked.

"She and a small crew have been stranded on a moon near the station we've been observing," he said. "It's a recording, so I'm sending it to you."

"Good," he said. According to procedure, the message was labeled with the call number of the ship that had sent it out. EFS-UKJEa-2117. That labeled it as being from a university on Earth, which should be right.

And when he activated the message, he recognized the young woman who appeared in the cockpit area. "Hey, this is Precis Nuemann and a couple others, and we've gotten ourselves lost."

"It was a miscalculation on how much power we had," a young man said off-screen.

"Well it did put us way off where we meant to go," Precis said, unconcerned about it. "Anyhow, we didn't take too much damage, but we need to do some repairs and adjustments before we try going back. We don't know how long we'll be here, but if you all over in that station nearby could help out, we'd appreciate it. We're willing to trade for materials we could use for the repairs. So, I hope you can get back to us. We'll try not to be trouble."

"What kind of miscalculation got you here ahead of us?" Claude wondered. That was another complication to negotiating with the people on the station. But, it could also be a legitimate excuse to approach them. He checked to make sure others were aware of the message so they could use it to excuse their approach, sent out the rest of the orders to head over to the moon, and then headed out to join his family for lunch.

Lucy was five years old by Earth standards; she and the other school-age children studied together in one class, using computer classes set to each student's skill level. "Marshall gave me a good book with a story about a turtle king who stood on a huge stack of turtles to show how great he was," Lucy told him. "But it hurt the other turtles and they all fell down, so he wasn't a good king."

As he was eating his sandwich to finish off lunch in case he had to get back soon, Claude nodded to that. Rena asked, "Was it like your favorite book, since it had turtles?"

Lucy shook her head; a moon hairpin matching her mother's glittered in her hair as she did. "No, because those turtles are sea turtles that live in seas and oceans, and the turtles in the new book were land turtles that lived by a pond." She dipped a carrot stick in ranch dressing, then asked, "Do you think there are sky turtles out there who live in the air, if there's sea turtles that live in the water, and land turtles that live on the land?"

"It's possible," Rena said, smiling at the idea.

Once he had a moment to pause in eating, Claude added, "I'm sure I've heard of sky turtles before, but I'm not sure what planet they were on. Definitely not Earth or Expel."

"I can look that up," Lucy said eagerly. "That would count as science study, I think."

"Sure, if you learn good facts about them and tell the class about the sky turtles," Rena said.

"Okay, then I'll do that today!" she said. "The sky turtles would be able to fly, so they wouldn't have to stack up on top of each other to be high up. But they can't fly too high or they'll leave their planet and get homesick!"

"Right, that would be the smart thing for them," Rena said.

After lunch, Claude headed back to the bridge in time to take care of a couple of small tasks before they were hailed by the Laputain station. "This person says he's the leader of the station, and he want to talk with you Captain," the communications officer said.

"Good, I'll take the call," Claude said, sitting at the second communications panel.

As soon as a black-shelled alien turtle appeared on screen, the station leader demanded, "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

"I'm Captain Claude Kenni of the Earth Federation explorer ship Magnus," he said calmly. "We have been exploring regions of the galaxy we know little about, which brought us here. In this case, we also received a message from a university ship in our group on a moon near here. We wanted to check on them too."

"Hmph," the station leader replied. "I'm Magistrate Ji Lua and this is Mine Station A3. We've never heard of your group. Are you agents of the Tarel or of Athun?"

Athun was a new name. "Neither," Claude said, bringing up a small map to share in the call. "Earth is on an arm of the galaxy that is a long distance from here. We have not heard of Athun, although we have come across the ruins of Tarel homeworld."

"That is something we cannot confirm," Ji Lua said testily, nearly retreating his head back.

"We have a lot of information we gleaned from their world, since there were no inhabitants there," Claude said, bringing up a file where he'd been gathering photos that should be safe to show. "I can send you a few now if you want to see for yourself."

There was a few moments where Ji Lua studied the photos. "What happened to them?"

"One of their tribe leaders decided that he was a god of destruction and destroyed as much of the Tarel as he could," Claude said. "He claims that he destroyed their entire race; we were hoping for some information of if this is true or if there are some remnants around."

After some more thought, the magistrate responded in a less hostile tone. "We don't know either. Our Tarel supervisors suddenly left around fifty years ago, never returning. No trade ships have come to pick up the materials they ordered us to mine in this system. But they were fond of tricks and cruelty, much against Athun's teachings. As such, we could not trust that they were gone. We have not heard from our homeworld either, so we did not know what to do."

"That's a rough spot to be in," Claude said sympathetically. But the Tarel had gone down due to a number of factors, including computer viruses that could have ruined a communications satellite. "Would it be all right if we picked up our fellows on the moon here, then headed out to check up on your homeworld? Or another station where your people are, to help you get back in contact with them?"

"You may pick up your fellows, that would be little trouble," Ji Lua said. "But as for giving you directions to our homeworld… hmm, do you truly know nothing of the Great Benefactor Athun?"

He shook his head. "No, who is Athun?"

"We used to believe he was a great god capable of anything," he said, seeming to relax more in speaking of their beliefs. "Now, we are not sure if he was a god or if he was simply a great being that happened upon us. Athun taught us a great many things, advancing our society greatly. Then he gave our ancestors a riddle to space travel, telling us that we should come out to the stars and find him. We have found that Athun visited a great many civilizations in this region of the galaxy and advanced them as he did to us, telling them too to seek him out. But when we finally found the means to travel between stars, we found the Tarel. Or rather, they found us and subjugated us quickly. The Tarel subjugated all of us who believe in Athun, it seems."

Within the Federation, Athun would be considered a criminal. They believed that civilizations should be allowed to develop naturally, only allowed to be contacted once they'd found reliable means to leave their star system. "I see. We didn't have such contact and developed the means of space travel out of our own curiosity, which of course led us this far to find out what is here."

"That is unusual," Ji Lua said, but then got interrupted by a muffled voice on his end. "Hush, not now," he said quietly to the side, then turned back to him. "I apologize, that was my son; he got a little excited to see me talking with a hairless monkey, if you pardon the term."

Claude smiled at that, getting an idea. Beliefs and values could differ wildly across the galaxy. But in general, nearly every society valued their children. "That's fine; I'm sure my daughter would be the same way since she's fascinated by turtles right now." Ji Lua seemed pleased with that, so he pushed ahead with it. "Actually, this is rather informal, but I could call for her and we could let the kids talk with each other for a little bit."

"That would be good, even if it is non-standard," Ji Lua agreed.

Since Lucy was in another part of the ship, Claude sent off a message to Rena and the teacher to get her back on the bridge. He discussed official matters with Ji Lua in the meantime, explaining that Precis' group were researchers who ended up here through some mishap. And before long, the magistrate opened up more about the problems they were having being stuck in the station without a ship capable of getting back home. They had a greenhouse to grow their own food, and a system to get the water and minerals they required. But while all of the Tarel had left the station in the incident that destroyed them all, they had left behind robotic guards that enforced Tarel rules and made the Laputa continue to mine the area even though there was no one to ship the resources to. The Laputa were a pacifist culture for the most part, so they were not able to stop the robots from harassing them.

Lucy kept hold of her mother's hand this time, until she got close. "Hi again, what is it?" she asked.

"Well you wanted to help me today, so I called you back to help," Claude said, putting her on his lap again. Ji Lua had brought over a second stool to let his son sit by him in the call. "This is my daughter Lucy, and this would be Ji Lua, the leader of the station we're near, and his son Lu Tai."

"Oh!" Lucy said, her eyes widening at the two turtle people she was meeting.

Lu Tai was already eager to meet Claude, but he got more excited to meet Lucy. "Oh, you're a smaller monkey too!"

Lucy was quick to lean forward to put her hands on the console; Claude watched her carefully to make sure she didn't hit any buttons although she should know better. "Wow, you're space turtles! That's awesome!"

"Yeah!" Lu Tai said, bobbing his head. Meanwhile, some of the bridge crew were smiling and trying to watch without intruding. "But how do you get so far out in space? You don't have any shell on your bodies or anything to protect you, or even any horns or claws to fight with. There's some scary aliens out there."

"Well we don't, so we have to make our own protection," Lucy said. "We have to learn a lot to be smart enough to build ships to travel in space and keep away from bad aliens."

"Right, and we make a lot of connections across the galaxy so we make more friends than enemies," Claude added.

Nodding to that, Lucy said, "Yeah, it's better to make lots of friends so the galaxy is a nicer place. And we do good at that, like I'm from two different planets!"

"We have to learn a lot, but that's incredible that you only have learning and making friends to help you," Lu Tai said, greatly impressed.

"Well how do you travel around in space?" Lucy asked.

Lu Tai's answer was surprising. "Our shells can protect us out in space as long as we're near a planet or space station. It's because our homeworld is actually two worlds that orbit together, and at certain times of the year, there's a star wind that blows people and creatures from one world to the other. We learned to travel the star wind to find the best way to live, but then we had a lot to figure out from the Great Athun about how to build ships to go past the twin worlds."

"Indeed," Ji Lua said. "And some of us even decide to live out in the star wind for many years, to seek enlightenment."

"Wow, that's amazing!" Lucy said. She and Lu Tai talked for a long while.

Eventually, they cut off communications as Claude's crew had picked up Precis, her crew, and their ship. Ji Lua agreed to see about trading materials that Precis would need for their repairs. That would help fabricate better parts. And since these were friends, Claude brought Rena and Lucy to the docks to meet up with them.

He'd expected Precis to be with a few of her university colleagues. However, it turned out to be Leon and Ashton with her. The two guys looked surprised to see them. Precis, on the other hand, didn't immediately notice. "Oh, Captain, thanks for picking us up! But, um, do you know where we are?"

"Hello Precis, you're way off course," Claude said. "As in it took us two years to get here."

"Hmm?" She then realized who she was talking to as Leon chuckled behind his hand. "Hey guys! How're you doing? I haven't seen you guys in person since Lucy was a little bitty one."

"Hi!" Lucy said happily, smiling at them. They talked frequently in video calls, so she knew them well.

"We're doing fine," Rena said. "It is good to see you again. How are things with you guys, aside from being lost?"

"We're fine, that's the only issue," Precis said.

"The ships needs a bit of work, but it should be capable of normal space flight," Leon said. "We were testing a new warp engine. And given where you were planning on going, we definitely went way off the mark."

"I thought there might be trouble from the probe business, so I came along just in case," Ashton said. Gyoro and Ururun were still with him, although they were no longer possessing him. The twin dragons were hanging around him on their own, in smaller forms than they'd originally been.

"You're already on manned flights with that engine?" Claude asked, concerned about it himself. They seemed safe, but that was much more dangerous than the Magnus' journey.

"It's fine, none of the probes came back damaged," Precis said. "Though maybe the mass of the full ship set us off-course."

"Maybe, but how did you get here ahead of us?" Rena asked. "We were taking a slow voyage to explore around, but it should still take months to get out here."

"We made a shortcut through a temporary wormhole, in the short of it," Leon said.

Precis nodded. "Yeah! So like, a lot of people see space as a flat plane, but it's not really. It's more flexible than that, like a blanket that spreads over everything."

"So the galaxy is like the blanket of God?" Lucy asked.

"You could say that," Precis said. "Though what I was saying, space is like a blanket that can be spread out flat, but can also be rumpled and wrinkled up. Wormholes are things that let you hop from one wrinkle to another. So if we can take control of the existence of wormholes, including where they start and where they end, we can hop right around the galaxy anywhere we wish. We've got making the entrance good, and keeping the wormhole stable enough for travel good. But the exit isn't always where we think it is."

Leon nodded. "Right, we had the test probes able to calculate where they were headed, then sent them out to warp away then warp back to the university. Only one probe managed to do exactly that. The rest took multiple warps, up to sixty-eight, in order to get back home."

"That is a dangerous test to run on your own, though," Rena said. "You might have hopped out of the galaxy."

"Well we didn't, so we know we have to do more work on the calculations before we move on in development," Precis said, not as worried.

"So then are stars like lint on the blanket of God?" Lucy asked, apparently having thought about the metaphor.

Precis laughed at that while the rest of them smiled. "You could say that," Precis said. "Although I'd think it'd be the kind of lint you don't want to see because stars are all fiery and gassy."

"I just hope God doesn't wash the blankets," Lucy said, still taking this seriously.

"We shouldn't have to worry about that," Rena said to reassure her.

It was nice to have a few of their friends back together. Leading them in the efforts to save Expel had taught Claude a lot, about himself and about leadership. These were friends that he could count on for anything. And, that led to a reassuring idea. "Right. So, do you guys need to head back to the university as soon as you can? We could use your help with something."

"We should be fine if we call them soon," Precis said. "What's up?"

To tell them, he sent Lucy back to class and invited them up to his office on the bridge. There, he brought out a wall screen in order to show them video of what they recorded on the Tarel homeworld. "These were the Tarel, a tribal race so obsessed with war that they felt entirely destroying themselves was a great accomplishment. However, we're not certain that they did destroy themselves entirely. There might be a few groups still out there, which makes this region of space a dangerous place to be."

"Even if they are this crazy, they shouldn't be a major threat to a Federation ship, especially with you and Rena aboard," Leon said.

"If it was just that, I would take this as a normal risk of exploring unknown space," Claude said. "But the crew of the Magnus is made up mostly of people who wouldn't know what to do with themselves being in battle in person. We also have twenty-three children aboard. The Tarel records show that they prefer boarding a vessel, killing off a portion of the crew, and enslaving the rest. Even if I look at this impartially, sticking around this area where the Tarel might be is too high of a risk for Magnus.

"But the station here is manned by a race that was enslaved by the Tarel, the Laputa. They have not heard from either the Tarel or their homeworld in fifty years. They're wary of outsiders, but I'm getting them open to a potential alliance if we can get them back in contact with their home. We have some great engineers on board, but your knowledge could be helpful in getting the Laputain communications back in place. And with you all aboard, we should be safer if we encounter some Tarel survivors. What do you say: will you stick with the Magnus until we either confirm a Tarel presence and head back home, or confirm their extinction so we can finish up? If they are gone, then you should be able to head back early on your ship."

"Well sure, why not?" Precis said. "Better than leaving you hanging."

"I agree, the potential of danger is enough for us to stick around for safety," Ashton said.

"It's been a while since I battled, but that shouldn't be a problem," Leon said. "We have to take time to reassess the calculations anyhow or we'll end up wandering around the galaxy for a long time."

"Thanks guy, that's a big relief," Claude said, smiling. It was good to know that even years later, he could count on his friends. "The first thing we need to do, before we leave this area, is get rid of robots that are enforcing enslavement on the Laputains of this station."

"When you say get rid of them, does that include possibly disabling a few so we can study them?" Precis asked.

"As long as you're careful with them, sure," he said.

Request of a Change in Plans for Exploratory Ship Magnus

Unforeseen circumstances have led to a situation where we need to reassess our plans for exploration of Sector 37 of the Milky Way Galaxy. In this report, we have evidence of a possibly extinct civilization, the Tarel. They were a people obsessed with war, enough that the extinction event was caused by one of their own tribes. But their extinction is not certain as there may be survivors hiding in this sector. As we are a community-based ship, we would like to keep out of this dangerous territory.

While we have discovered a dangerous enemy, we have also discovered a potential network of allies for the Federation. The Tarel enslaved a number of other worlds, including a group called the Laputa. We came across a mining base where the Laputa were forced to work and found that they have been out of contact with their homeworld since the potential extinction of the Tarel. The Laputa were assisted in advancing to their space age by a being they believed was the god Athun. According to them, Athun contacted a number of civilizations, which became an alliance before the Tarel tore them apart.

Another point that should be made is that a group of researchers from a Federation university (Dr. Precis Nuemann, Dr. Leon Geeste, and Ashton Anchors) have been picked up by us after an accident involving an experimental warp engine. They are known by us as skilled adventurers and experts, so they will be staying with us to help mitigate the risks while we are in the sector.

Our request for a change of plans is as follows:

1. We would like to remain near the Laputa homeworld to assist them in getting back in contact with their lost citizens.

2. We request that an explorer ship and guard ships come out to take over our original mission, a group that can safely scout out this area for potential survivors of the Tarel tribes. With children aboard our ship, we do not want to take risks with the Tarel.

3. When the replacement ships make it out to the Laputa homeworld, we will head back into Federation territory to review our plans from there.

We do not like giving up our mission at this stage, but in this situation, it seems better to leave this area.

Response to Change of Plans for Magnus

After reviewing the reports you have sent in, we agree to your change of plans as the wisest course for your situation. We thank you for having the bravery to stick around to work towards an alliance with the Laputa and potentially other civilizations taught by Athun despite the risks presented by the Tarel. We have gathered an exploratory fleet to head out to meet you, headed by the ship Soline. They will contact you when they set out.

We wish you the best of luck in staying safe, Magnus.

Journal Entry – Sector 37 Mission Year 3 3-18

If I got to talk with my younger self today, he'd probably be shocked that I'm currently waiting on someone else to complete this exploration mission. Why give up on an adventure so soon? Especially since it's one I wanted to do myself. I remember when I went to Expel on accident, I was homesick a lot. But I also felt like I was finally free to do what I wanted. I had control over my life instead of just following the path my father made for me. Even as the risks escalated, I didn't want to give up that freedom.

But I've got a lot more responsibility to consider now. If it was just me and my friends from that adventure, I wouldn't be worried about the Tarel possibly being around. We've dealt with people who were that violent and aggressive, possibly even more so. But my current crew is full of brilliant people who haven't touched weapons or magic at all in their lives, a number of whom have their children with them to keep their family close. I need to keep them safe. While my friends and I were easily able to dispatch the Tarel slaver robots in the Laputa mine station, protecting the rest is more certain if we simply keep out of danger.

Of course, if I was able to talk with my younger self, I'd end up telling him that he's doing a lot of dumb things, but he should still stick with it. It'll be worth it in the end. Like now, we've been able to see a lot of strange and wonderful worlds on this journey, some of which have been a pity to leave. But being able to step out of danger now so that we all can continue on exploring elsewhere, that will be worth it too. I suppose that contradicts my advice to back then to stick with it, but the situations are different.

Since we're going back to Federation space, I should make time to go out with Rena and Lucy to visit a zoo, even if potential sky turtles can't match up to how we've met a civilization of space turtles.