A Chance Encounter
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“…in three, two, one, mark,” said the pilot as the ship blinked in from hyperspace. “All systems normal, and… there’s the landmark beacon. It looks like we’re ready for the nineteenth system when you are, captain.”

“Wonderful,” responded the captain. “Bring up the cloaking device, start heading in then, standard trajectory, you know the routine.”

A moment later, the intercom on the bridge squawked to life. “All of our guests are showing stable vital signs, captain. Shall I wake the ones in stasis?”

“Yes, please do, doctor,” the captain replied into the intercom, “and also let them know we’ll be nearing the first gas giant in a few hours.”

“Captain, you need to see this,” exclaimed the pilot without looking up from the display. “I’ve checked this several times but….”

“What, pilot?”

“It’s the satellite of the blue rock. It’s… gone.”

“Gone?” repeated the captain incredulously. “The great white satellite? How can it just be gone?”

“I… have no idea, captain, but it’s not showing up anywhere in any spectrum.”

The captain was silent a moment before speaking again. “What about the third planet itself, pilot?”

“It’s still there,” responded the pilot while scanning through multiple readouts. “There seems to be a lot of energy coming from it, but we’re still too far out to get any details.”

“Hmm… our itinerary has us going to the rocky planets soon enough. Continue on toward the outermost giant, but keep your sensors on the third planet. I want to know what’s happened to its satellite, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I need to let them know back home what we know so far.”

“What about the guests?”

The captain groaned. “I have to let them know as well, but you and I both know they’ll be disappointed if something’s happened to the biggest draw in the system.”

The rendezvous with the outermost giant came and went without incident, and it had been several hours since the ship had changed course heading toward the ringed giant. The anticipation amongst the guests was more subdued than usual on approaching the sixth planet, and the fate of the third planet and its satellite remained a popular topic of conversation for guests and crew alike.

On the bridge, the doctor and the pilot were poring over readouts from the ship’s array of sensors, most of which had been directed toward the third planet. The captain was sitting nearby, reviewing updates on the ship and its contents, when he received a page on his private comm.

“The energy coming off the third planet is still off the scale across all spectra,” said the doctor. “It would be a miracle if anything were to have survived, no matter what actually happened in the first place.”

“All right, we’ll check it out,” muttered the captain as the comm channel closed. “Pilot, bring up visuals of the red rock. I’ve gotten reports that several guests have seen something unusual in that direction through their scopes. Something tiny, but not moving like any sort of pebble.”

As the pilot worked to bring the visuals up, the doctor started calling up sensor data from the region of the red rock. A moment later, a complex sensor image of the fourth planet appeared on the main viewscreen, and it wasn’t long before the doctor spoke up.

“I’ve found it, in the sensor logs, which would put it about… there,” declared the doctor, pointing to a spot on the viewscreen. Instantly the image changed as the pilot zoomed in on that spot. The doctor rechecked the sensor log, pointed to another spot, and the pilot zoomed in again.

After the fourth zoom, they saw it: a tiny green dot in the starfield. The pilot centered the view on the dot and zoomed in again, giving the crew their first good look at the object. It looked like a green ship, but much smaller than even the escape pods on the ship. It also appeared to be pointed toward the ship, and the crew could see a large jet of green vapor apparently coming from the rear of the object.

“It looks to be fifteen to twenty feet long, all told, and maybe five feet tall,” reported the doctor. “And it appears to be headed for us on an intercept course.”

“Our cloak is still up, correct?” responded the captain, receiving affirmation from the pilot. “Then how can it pierce our cloak? None of the native sapients in this system should be able to do that! Unless….”

The captain pulled up a file on the third planet and jumped to the section on native lifeforms. A moment later, the captain said, “The sapients from the third planet are generally five-and-a-half to six feet tall. Even with just one crewmember, that’s awfully cramped in there, and there would be very little room left over for support systems….”

“Captain!” the pilot called out. “Come look at this!”

On the viewscreen, the green object had extended a tubular structure from its back right, pointing several degrees to the right of straight back. A second later, a second green jet emanated from the end of the tube, causing the object to start turning slightly to its left.

“Captain, if I didn’t know better, I would swear there were claws at the end of that exhaust tube,” said the doctor.

“Doctor, I think you may be right,” responded the captain. “I don’t think that’s a ship. I think it’s a beast of some kind.”

“How can that be possible?” asked the doctor. “There is nothing in the records for this system about any type of native space beasts.”

“If I had to wager, I would guess it has something to do with what happened to the blue rock. In any case, we’re not prepared to deal with a space beast, and I’d rather not bring it on board and endangering our guests if we can help it. Send a message back home and see how quickly they can get out here with a xenobiology detail. I’d recommend a well-armed one.”

The ship reached the ringed giant on schedule; by that time, the green beast had cleared the ring of pebbles on its way to the sixth planet. Since its discovery by the crew, the beast had gotten progressively faster, as its green jet appeared to have been functioning continuously, causing speculation as to how the beast was generating so much power. The doctor also noted that the beast gave off very little heat, though this was not unusual among known space beasts.

The itinerary had allotted ten dozen hours for guests to explore the ringed giant and its satellites, before heading to the inner planets, including the still highly-exothermic third planet. At its projected acceleration, the beast would have crossed the orbit of the great giant by then (though the fifth planet itself was on the other side of its star). If an encounter were imminent, the captain would prefer that it happen in a planetary system rather than in interplanetary space. Plus, reinforcements were on the way.

Before long, three ships blinked in from hyperspace just beyond a landmark beacon. Once they got their bearings and cloaked, one light warship headed for the sixth planet, while the other escorted the research ship on its way to the third planet. From the ringed giant, it appeared the beast did notice the newly-arrived ships, but did not otherwise immediately react. A few hours later, the beast cut off its green vapor jet, though it would still reach the sixth planet well before the warship.

After another dozen hours, three additional ships blinked in, two more light warships and a creature-capture vessel, all of which cloaked and started heading toward the ringed giant. The beast continued to hurtle toward the sixth planet, occasionally adjusting course with its rear legs.

It was several hours before the beast was expected to arrive at the ringed giant. Though many guests were out on the last scheduled excursions before the beast’s arrival, many more were watching the live feed of the beast at several locations around the touring ship, particularly its massive observation deck. This video feed also went to the other six ships in the system, where it received similar interest from their respective crews, and was already on its way back home.

The beast extended its rear legs, and from its right leg came a thin jet of green vapor. The jet lasted only a few seconds, but was enough to start the beast slowly rotating. When the beast had rotated nearly ninety degrees, for the first time since it was discovered, it moved its head, curling it under its belly to be able to see where it was going. As it neared a half-rotation, a green jet appeared from its left rear leg, lasting a couple seconds. Several more pulses of jet intermittently came from each leg, till the beast’s rear was pointing toward the ringed giant.

Suddenly, a massive green cloud of vapor erupted out of the rear of the beast, enveloping it as it continued to hurtle through space. Though somewhat indistinct through the vapor, the viewers of the video feed could still see the beast extend its rear legs straight ahead, adding two smaller vapor jets to the larger one. Two more vapor jets appeared a moment later.

By then, the observation deck was a din of cheers and applause, which increased sharply when the beast extended its front legs and opened its mouth, adding three more vapor jets.

The beast could now be seen unaided from the observation deck, and though its nine vapor jets had been counterthrusting almost continuously, it was still going too quickly to stop by the time it reached the planet. The touring ship itself had established orbit around the ringed giant, near the giant’s largest white satellite. The leading warship was still many hours away, having yet to cross the toppled giant’s orbit; the slower capture vessel’s group trailed by at least two dozen hours.

As the guests and crews watched intently, the beast, still at full counterthrust, shot past the gas giant. The beast attempted to rotate as it passed the planet, but only succeeded in punching a hole in the planet’s rings. The beast reoriented itself toward the sixth planet and opened all its vapor jets.

“It appears that the beast is intelligent,” said the doctor. “It looks like it tried to use the gravity well of the planet to slow itself.”

On the ship-to-ship comm, the biologist from the capture vessel said, “Yes, but I doubt that the beast is native to space. A native space beast should have more control over its speed and know when to start slowing down. Our beast overshot its apparent target, but it tried to compensate and it certainly appears to be trying to return.”

“It has managed to slow down quite a bit,” said the pilot, “and based on how much counterthrust it generated earlier, it should start coming back here in… about four hours.”

Four and a half hours later, the beast cut all its vapor jets except its main rear jet, though it was noticeably smaller than before. The beast uncurled and folded its limbs into itself, taking the form in which it was discovered, and slowly started heading back to the ringed planet.

The beast took its time returning to the ringed planet, leaving its jet on for only a few minutes. Thus, when it drifted back into visual range of the touring ship, the lead warship was itself only a few hours away from the ringed giant.

The sense of anticipation was building on the observation deck as the beast crossed the orbit of the great hazy satellite. The beast extended its front legs forward and turned on their jets to slow down further, drifting very slowly towards the touring ship. The crew of the ship was anxious but alert, ready to defend or flee the moment the word came down.

Moments before it reached the ship, the beast unfolded its legs and relaxed its body, finally looking more like a beast than a ship to its attentive audience. The crowd could see the beast had six legs, a neck at least a foot long, and a thin tail, and the “hull” of the ship turned out to be a series of articulated chitinous shells. The beast appeared to stretch its legs as it drifted toward the touring ship.

The beast drifted over the window of the observation deck, grabbed onto a support arch outside the window, and positioned itself to look inside the window. For several minutes, the beast watched the crowd through the observation window, moving to different support arches to see the entire deck, while the guests and crew watched the beast in fascination. The beast then stopped and sat still for several more minutes before gliding off the observation window.

External sensors followed the beast as it skittered over the surface of the ship, tapping, sniffing, grasping outcroppings with its feet and its prehensile tail, even tasting the ship in a few places. Every so often the beast would stop and sit still as before, twice lying completely prostrate on the ship’s hull. After a couple hours of exploring a small fraction of the ship’s surface, the beast returned to the observation window to look in on the assembled crowd.

The beast had remained on the support arch watching the lead warship as it arrived at the sixth planet and took position alongside the touring ship. Once the warship was positioned, the beast glided over to it and began to explore its surface like it examined the touring ship before. As it did so, the warship launched a tiny probe to examine the beast itself. The beast watched the probe warily as it approached, but did not stop it. When satisfied with its exploration, the beast returned to its perch on the observation window of the touring ship, where it remained until the three other ships arrived.

Once the ships arrived and took up their positions, the beast glided over to examine the creature-capture vessel. As it did so, a cargo bay door opened on the capture vessel, exposing a large air lock. The beast came back round to the open air lock, waited several minutes eyeing the air lock, and slowly entered the air lock. A moment later, the cargo bay door closed with the beast still inside and examining its spacious confines.

After the unexpectedly smooth capture, the vessel and its escorts headed out to the nearest landmark beacon, while the touring ship started toward the inner planets. The research vessel was still many hours out from the third planet, but it had declared the hazardous region to be really tiny, extending out only twice the distance of its former satellite’s orbit. The vessel also determined that nearly all of the mass of the satellite had fallen into the planet, and that most of the energy coming from the third planet appeared to have come from a very large number of fission reactions.

On the capture vessel, the biologist had discovered that the beast carried, though it seemed unaffected by, some type of primitive necrotizing contagion, one that most sophonts were already immune to. The beast had already shown signs of intelligence, so the biologist had started attempting to communicate with it, though the beast seemed uncomfortable around certain crewmembers. Otherwise, the beast appeared very powerful and highly adaptable, and smelled faintly, but distinctly, of mint.

Out past the landmark beacon, as the capture vessel prepared to blink into hyperspace, a small but unmistakable grin broke across the beast’s face.

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