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The light of the system’s blue star was intense. Through his tendrils, Genn felt the Great Beast’s reluctance to go any further. Yet Genn drove it on all the same and ignored the high-pitched, panicked hum that spread throughout the cockpit. Only when Genn turned the Great Beast towards the planet below, did it calm down and return to its regular, deep song.

Genn was just as nervous as the Great Beast was; he didn’t like exchanges. A lot of things could go wrong--and had gone wrong in the past, set-ups, involvement of authorities, altercations, even a rip deal: anything could happen.

From high orbit, the planet’s atmosphere glowed blue as if the world below was made entirely of ice and water. Beyond those thick clouds lay a place that bathed in eternal twilight, shielded from its deadly sun by uncountable extremophiles that lived in its atmosphere and thrived on radiation and heat.

Genn took in the vast expanse of space. The Great Beast’s hum lulled him into that strange feeling--part anxiety, part acceptance of whatever would come--that he experienced just before an exchange. His muscles ached; he would need some rest first.

After the Great Beast had eased into the planet’s orbit, Genn retreated to the cold feeding room, where the light of the Great Beast’s bioluminescent veins was faint and his eyes could finally rest. There, his tendrils reached out into the layer of biomass the Great Beast produced; he fed and slipped into a light slumber.

The symbiotic union with a Great Beast could cause the most magnificent dreams. The gentle giants, genetically engineered by the Mass to accommodate Sentients and cargo, had powerful spirits that were capable of channeling the magical energy needed to open a portal to another world. Only a few Sentients were able of doing the same and then only after a lifetime of training.

If that mighty spirit liked its symbiont, it could share images previously undreamed of. Drifting in the mind-space of Great Beasts, Genn had witnessed the power of their collective and genetic memories; he had seen places that were visited by the precursors of the Great Beasts--long before they were made servants of the Mass--millions or billions of years ago. He had seen stars that by now had gone supernova, planets that had by now been torn apart by asteroids, clouds of matter which would now be new planets, and worlds that may have by now been eaten by the nameless things that dwell in the void.

It sometimes made Genn feel sorry for other Sentients; while they could ride the Great Beasts, the Great Beasts would never share what their kind had seen with them; only the Mold had that privilege, and they had discovered many a world to plunder thanks to the shoals of Great Beasts they rode through the known universe.

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The Great Beast’s high-pitched moan roused Genn from his deep and nourishing slumber. Through the symbiotic connection they shared, Genn knew the Great Beast had detected movement in the planet’s orbit--movement that it considered to be a threat.

Genn made his way up through the Great Beast’s innards, lit only by bioluminescent veins that glowed in soft reds and greens. When he entered the small and warm cockpit, a thick membrane slid aside to offer a view of the planet’s horizon. In the blue darkness below, Genn saw the blazing trail of a small spacecraft that struggled to wrest itself free from the planet’s pull.

The Great Beast had no complicated instruments like the other Sentients had aboard their ships, but it could predict courses and detect threats much in the same way any organism can--though it could do so on a much larger scale. By observing the spacecraft’s trajectory, the Great Beast had determined that it made its way towards Genn and the Great Beast; it would be here within a solar hour. The Great Beast hummed a nervous song. Genn’s tendrils connected with its exposed nervous matter and sent out soothing thoughts to calm it.

Genn expected company. The only question was if this was the right company. In Genn’s line of work, he could take no chances. There was little the Great Beast could do in and of itself when it came to defense. Luckily, Genn was not the only creature aboard the Great Beast. . .

Deep in the bowels of the Great Beast lived the Gutfish: these stumpy, worm-like beings were the first and only line of defense of any Great Beast. In their symbiotic relationship, the Great Beast provided nourishment to the Gutfish; in return, they were launched from the Great Beast’s body in case there was danger, to protect it or to allow it enough time to escape.

When Genn had made his way to the dark bowels, the Gutfish sensed his presence and greeted him with excited chirping. He took a chitin spear and mounted the first Gutfish he found. Once Genn was seated, the Great Beast rushed to expel both Gutfish and rider from its body in a process that other Sentients may have found disgusting, but that had become second nature to the space-faring Mold.

Genn and the Gutfish were greeted by total silence and violent glare of the blue star. It took Genn a moment to adjust; it always felt strange to return to the outside. A prickle went back and forth over Genn’s thin chitin skin and through the fungal fruit that grew underneath; it was not an altogether unpleasant sensation, and in a way it always felt as if he was coming home.

The Gutfish stretched the membranes it used for terrestrial flight, its happy song lost in space. Genn directed it towards the bright blaze that closed in on the Great Beast and felt the creature stir beneath him as it prepared strong, armor-piercing spines--one of its many natural weapons--and flexed the muscles that could launch them fast enough to pierce the strongest hulls.

With a sharp prod of his spear in the Gutfish’s side, Genn urged the creature on. It picked up tremendous speed as it released gas from its air sacs, and Genn shared in its happiness at being in open space again. He stood upright on the beast’s back, firmly latched to it with his tendrils, caught the intense light of the blue star on his face, and felt free.

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The spaceship was thin, long, and sharp with a broad base--not unlike a nail. Purple, blue, green, and yellow danced over the hull wherever the light would hit it. Genn saw no openings, no windows, no portholes, no exhausts, no engines--nothing broke the smooth surface of its seamless hull.

As Genn drove his Gutfish closer, the ship’s hull changed: on its sides grew smooth, bulbous outcroppings and liquid metal slid aside to reveal an arsenal of energy weapons that could easily burn through or pierce the Gutfish’s thick skin.

Genn braced himself and gave the Gutfish free rein to allow it to evade any attack maneuvers. The creature’s muscles tensed underneath Genn as it built up the pressure to launch its armor-piercing spines. Through the symbiotic connection, Genn could feel the Gutfish’s near-ecstatic excitement.

A slight, nagging ache crept into Genn’s nervous system when a telepathic link was established between ship and Gutfish--between pilot and rider. As Genn intensified his tendrils’ grip on the Gutfish, a single word echoed through the telepathic link.

It was the wrong word.

The Gutfish swerved to the right when the spaceship’s weaponry lit up in an intimidating sequence of deadly flashes. Blinding light tore through space where Genn and the Gutfish had been but a moment before. Genn felt the pull and the heat of the energy weapons and drank eagerly from the Gutfish’s adrenaline.

The nail-shaped space ship dove to intercept the Gutfish’s altered course. A battery of cannons protruded from its liquid hull as reeds rise from the water and flashed forth a barrage of deadly light, through which the Gutfish weaved its long, worm-like shape, seemingly without effort.

When the spaceship tore past in complete silence, Genn forced the Gutfish to surrender to the gravity pull of the planet below; the sudden change of course put Genn right behind the nail-shaped spaceship.

The sudden alteration of the Gutfish’s course had confused the hostile pilot: the nail-shaped vessel flew straight and--when Genn and the Gutfish had not turned up where they should--the pilot hesitated for a single moment.

And a single moment was all Genn needed.

With a mighty shock, the Gutfish fired a volley of spines. Each spine was up to twenty feet long and made of chitin strengthened through years of selective breeding. The power behind the salvo made it nearly impossible to track the spines with the naked eye, but Genn knew they would fly true from the moment the Gutfish released them.

The infusion of adrenaline from the Gutfish slowed time for beast and rider; Genn reveled in the joy of anticipating the spines’ interception of the spaceship. His skin burned with excitement and he cried in silence when the full payload penetrated the spaceship’s hull over its entire length.

The nail-shaped spaceship changed course no more, and its weapon systems fell silent as it hurtled through space towards the burning blue star.

The adrenaline levels of the Gutfish fell; it wriggled happily at its perfect kill. Genn let the Gutfish revel in its victory for a moment, but his eyes followed the spaceship as it shot aimlessly through space.

The exchange had fallen through, and Genn would not be able to return to this place. But perhaps he could at least salvage some of the spaceship’s equipment to make up for the loss.

[End]

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