Darkness. . . red. . . darkness . . . red. . .

I grip my rifle tightly. It responds to my touch by firing up a display, which immediately feeds me information: it’s fully loaded, a round is chambered, it’s on semi-automatic firing mode, and the safety is on.

When the light flashes red again, I take a quick look at Arkaa. He seems comfortable enough in the thick human-made plating that has been adjusted to match his non-human physique. The only Hunter technology on him is the large, hooked spear-like weapon. It’s made from a natural fiber that is stronger than many of the alloys that humans produce and looks very menacing in the flashing red light.

A slight shock announces that the platform has started its descent. Slowly at first, so that the blinding light from outside leaks in through but the smallest of cracks. Then it gains speed, and the daylight explodes in our faces, intense and blinding. My sensors take a microsecond to adjust to the light and increase in temperature, but the view is rewarding. . .

Our shuttle has landed in the middle of a desert of rocks that have been worn down and shaped into a strange, drooping landscape through countless millennia of acid rain. The rock formations are reminiscent of flowstone, stalagmites, and columns normally found in caves, and the ground level is even only where the corrosive precipitation has bared a vein of the planet’s strong minerals. All of this is set against a background of the planet’s rings, which trail through the sky from horizon to horizon. Behind them burns a lonely red dwarf.

The platform touches down with a gentle shock and the lights exchange their flashing for a constant, soft red glow. When we step down from the platform, the soil underneath our feet is hard and unrelenting.

‘Have you ever seen a world like this, Flapling?’

I sink to my knees and pick up a small, copper-toned rock. ‘Completely barren.’

In an instant, Arkaa lifts off. He uses his wings--his stilts--for leverage to catapult himself into the sky. As he lifts off, the sacs all over his body fill with gases to compensate for the world’s higher gravity--to make him lighter. When he expands his wings, he momentarily blocks the red star’s intense light and casts an impressive shadow. When the wind catches his wings, Arkaa lets loose a loud and terrifying screech: the Hunter’s cry of joy at spreading his wings again.

I let him have his fun for now and turn about ninety-five degrees west, away from the impressive rings that arch overhead, and focus on a flicker of light in the far distance. I magnify, and again, and again, until the flicker changes into a shimmering orb and I can finally see the metal structures underneath it: the old colony. . .

Purple and red vines run through the abandoned structures and a strange dark glow that absorbs the light emanates from them. My sensors confirm: this is where the life signs came from. I smile as I issue the command for the ship to deploy the gunship.

It’s time to reclaim a planet.

[End]