Rae Arizona awakened at her beachfront home under the rising suns of Arcturus IX. Taking a cup of coffee from the replicator, she padded out to the deck facing the ocean and lay on a lounger. The warmth felt good on her skin and he never tired of watching the dual sunrises over the emerald sea.
Sith suddenly appeared at her side. "Beautiful sunrises are they not?"
Rae had become used to the feline humanoid's stealthy approach which was his nature. When he came to live with her and Jan he startled them repeatedly and apologized, but now they were accustomed to it.
Jan strolled out on the deck, hair tousled from sleep, sipping a protein shake. She took the lounger next to Rae, while Sith curled up on the warm synthowood planking.
"It doesn't get any better than this..." Rae began, when an incoming call chime interrupted her. A holocomm image appeared bearing the smiling face of Cedric Hyde-Mathis, Director of Cosmic Retrievers.
"Good fortune," said Cedric warmly. "I hope I'm not interrupting."
"Hello Cedric," the women chorused and Sith bared his fangs in greeting.
"I have an assignment for you if you're interested."
They exchanged glances. It had been over 40mm of a twin sun cycle since the adventure on Arcturus III, where they had met Sith and Rae was wounded. Sith and Jan had taken reserve status as investigators for the Galactic Consortium to partner with Rae as Cosmic Retrievers. They were happy in their new home; however the lure of a new adventure was always irresistible.
"Go on," Jan replied.
"A Denebian named Abrami Ben-Turanab stole a secret formula for the annealing of lithium molecules from Amalgamated Transporters. He purchased a surplus Dragonfly IV jump ship and disappeared into space. Traces of his magnadrive were detected heading in the direction of an unexplored star system designated Bormann's Cluster. We presume he was attempting to contact the Red Moon Brotherhood and sell the formula, but they deny any contact and he continues to elude the authorities."
"An unexplored star system and an elusive fugitive," Sith purred. "Do we accept the challenge, partners?"
"Definitely," Rae replied. "What's the bounty on this capture, Cedric?"
"Amalgamated Transporters is offering 65 M/CR for return of the formula. The fugitive is of little consequence, although they are curious how he bypassed the retinal locks on their safe."
"I think forty percent of the reward will do nicely for us." Rae replied.
"Done," was the response.
"What model of jump ship is available for our use?" Jan asked.
"We ... ahem ... have obtained the latest model of General Astronautics' 'Firefly', a Class IX, from ... our usual sources. The Peace Patrol has yet to be equipped with them. You will be well served by this craft."
"Give us a 5 degree suncycle and we'll be on the hunt," Rae replied.
"Excellent. The ship will be delivered immediately. Good fortune, you three."
"Good fortune, Cedric."
Hyde-Mathis' image winked out.
"Approaching designated star system," the ships computer announced, "Awaiting further instructions."
Jan emerged from the ships living quarters and sat before the control console. The jump ship had taken longer than expected to locate their destination due to conflicting data, so the three had passed the time watching Tri-D's and scanning books in the ship's library. Rae and Sith padded in and stood behind her.
A thirteen planet system appeared on the view screen, orbiting around a white dwarf sun. Several of the inner planets were too hot to sustain any advanced life forms. Those in the furthest orbits were more likely to be where the fugitive was hiding.
"Begin search for designated ship. If detected, land nearby."
"Unless he's acquired some pirated model of cloaking device..." Rae began.
"Target detected. Prepare for landing."
"He's not even trying to hide. That's odd," Jan exclaimed. An image appeared on the view screen. "What a peculiar looking planet."
"It is barely so," Sith replied, "Such an erratic orbit and no land masses, water or vegetation, intriguing."
The ship settled on it's nullgravs, "Atmosphere present and breathable. Gravity Nine seven point eight five two of one gee. Opening exterior hatch and recharging solar cells."
Rae and Jan donned skin tight synthomail exploration suits and all three holstered their weapons. Opening the interior hatch they stepped cautiously onto the planets surface. There was a peculiar, yet not unpleasant smell in the air and the featureless surface was spongy under their feet.
They cautiously approached the fugitive's ship, weapons at the ready. The entry hatch stood open and the interior was brightly lit. A quick search determined the craft was empty. Jan lased the ships safe open and Sith placed the memo beads in his carrybelt. Rae had been examining the craft from the outside and joined them.
"No damage whatsoever. He must have landed here intentionally. Where is he? It's not like there's places to hide."
"He may be underground," Jan mused. "Or there was another ship waiting for him here..."
"Rae! Jan! Outside, now," Sith growled.
They emerged to see a tall, bearded, olive-skinned man dressed in a colorful tunic standing a short distance away.
"Ben-Turanab," Rae exclaimed. "Where did you come from? We're here to take you and the formula back to those you stole it from."
The figure uttered an odd, gurgling laugh and said nothing.
"I scent danger," Sith rumbled, drawing his machine pistol. "His eyes are dead and he's not breathing. That is not a live being."
"Very perceptive of you," the thing replied. "I find it easier to converse in this manner, as I have no vocal chords."
"Who or what are you," Jan said with an edge in her voice. "What have you done with Ben-Turanab?"
"Alas he is no more. I was overeager in extracting the knowledge from his brain and I absorbed him. Pity, he was so full of plans for his future and an excellent conversationalist."
"We'd like to converse with you, but we have a job to do," Rae said evenly. "So if you'll excuse us we'll be on our way. See you around the nebula."
"I'm afraid I can't allow that. At least not until you instruct me in the operation of my former guests spacecraft. I have need of it."
"By the beak of Horus, what are you?" Jan exclaimed. "Why do you need this ship?"
"I am ... Me. I need this ship to allow Me to colonize other planets, to absorb knowledge and their inhabitants; soon I will rule the galaxy. I shall be the galaxy."
"Jan! Sith! To the ship!" Rae barked, drawing her particle beam six guns. "We're leaving now. Adios."
Sith snarled when he found the ships hatch suddenly covered with fleshy strands. Claws extended, he slashed them to ribbons then he and Jan leapt inside.
Rae fired her pistols, burning holes in the figure which melted into the ground. She ran for the hatch and tumbled inside as it hissed shut. Jan was at the controls as the ship began lifting, then shuddered and stopped.
"Unable to achieve lift off, generators at overload, shutting down to prevent damage."
"Osiris' flail," Jan swore. "The ship's covered with those strands. Now what do we do?"
"We could electrify the hull," Rae said, "But that would take time. I'm not sure this whatever-it-is will allow us to..."
The ship gave a lurch and the three tumbled forward.
"It's dragging us under the surface," Sith snarled.
"What is this thing?" Rae muttered. "Is this whole planet alive?"
Finally the ship came to a halt and a voice said, "You are correct. I am both Me and the planet where I was created. Come out and behold Me in all my glory."
"Modest isn't it?" Rae said wryly. "Let's go see what this thing is."
The outer hatch opened and they emerged into a cavern with undulating blood red walls, ceiling and floor. It was uncomfortably warm and humid, the air thick to breathe. A ridged lump of grey tissue the size of a house dominated the space, held in mid air by thousands of fleshy strands and large vein-like tubes pulsing with red and yellow fluid.
"Am I not impressive to behold?" said the Ben-Turanab thing, rising from the floor. "Few have seen Me in all My glory."