Imagine a bird, a big bird. When it walks, it uses its wings as a second set of legs--stilts, really. The bird is over two meters tall and has a wingspan of more than twice that length, should it decide to spread its wings. Suffice to say it needs room to navigate.

This bird is a Hunter, and this particular specimen is called Arkaa. Arkaa is covered in feathers in various shining colors, which I can only describe as “metallic.”

‘You have the color of a sports vehicle.’

I have trouble keeping my thoughts in my head; I call it a charming programming error, although most tend to disagree with the “charming” part of that description.

But Arkaa laughs. . . Or at least, the Hunter’s equivalent thereof: he inflates a small sac under his long beak and then lets the sound escape in a sort of prolonged toot.

‘And you look like a flapling without wings.’ Arkaa’s voice sounds distorted--mechanical--through the translator.

I smile and decide I like Arkaa. This is a good thing, as we’ll be spending quite some time together.

A projected display flashes a yellow light at me. I turn around and let the shuttle’s scanners complete their body scan. When the display flashes green, the airlock unlocks and slides open.

The shuttle’s cockpit is very small, no more than a metal bubble lit green, blue, purple, and yellow by an assortment of flashing displays. The adjustments made to the cockpit in order to seat the Hunter seem to have cut into my space a little.

‘This is tight,’ I say. ‘It looks like I’ll have your feathers in my face.’

‘Consider it a privilege.’

Arkaa walks remarkably fast. The stilt-like wings and the short legs work hard to make him nearly as quick as I am. I can see he is agile as well when he folds his wings behind his back to put on his protective jumpsuit. The jumpsuit is purple, cyan, red, and yellow and has a golden protector for Arkaa’s impressively high crest. He neatly packs himself in the jumpsuit and makes sure his feathers are comfortably smoothed underneath the layers of synthetic material.

‘Can you fly in that thing?’ I ask him.

Arkaa extends one of his wings: a thin, almost transparent membrane unfolds beneath it. ‘It simulates wings,’ he says. ‘Not as comfortable as using my own, but it will have to do.’

‘Smart.’

I suit up. Although my jumpsuit is a lot less flashy than Arkaa’s, I get dressed quicker: no feathers to smoothen. Arkaa watches me, apparently intrigued by my--to him--alien physique.

‘And you?’ He says. ‘Can you fly in that thing?’ He closes his eyes and opens his beak to display several rows of small, menacing teeth: a Hunter’s smile.

‘Very funny,’ I say.

I zip up my jumpsuit, put on my helmet, and then slip past Arkaa to buckle up in the bowl-shaped captain’s chair. The board computer runs its regular checks; numbers and symbols flash on the display. Finally, I am informed that all systems are go and the shuttle is ready for departure.

‘Ready, Big Bird?’

‘Ready, Flapling.’

The docking clamps release the shuttle and propel it off on a course towards the planet beneath us: the barren world we’ve been commissioned to reclaim.

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