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.’
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?’
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.
A world unfolds beneath us, and it is utterly alien; its atmospheric gases glow green and pack together in thick, noxious clouds. Beneath them lie barren red and brown continents in between oceans of silver or green. Every few seconds, the blinding flash of lightning causes my sensors to flash warnings at me. The data on my displays is clear: the atmospheric gases are poisonous to humans, but not to Hunters; temperature in the landing zone is 43 degrees Celsius; the air is humid and contains corrosive substances that might damage untreated materials; there are signatures of organisms of varying sizes; and so on. . .
I absorb the information and slightly adjust our course to steer clear of a particularly thick corrosive cloud. The shuttle has a coating that should prevent any damage, as do our suits, but it’s best to play it safe. I look at Arkaa, whose calm demeanor conveys that he’s seen many a strange world before.
‘Do you know why the Syndicate is interested in this place?’ I ask.
Arkaa blows some air out of the side sacs near his upper shoulders and partially unfolds the wing membranes of his jumpsuit: it’s a shrug, or at least something like it.
‘Minerals, I think,’ he says.
The craft starts trembling as we enter the planet’s atmosphere. The displays flash positive reports at me and the data the ship feeds me predicts a clean entry and a smooth landin. In a millisecond, I check and authorize an automated report to the reclaimer ship in high orbit above us.
I catch Arkaa looking at me, but I cannot decipher the alien expression on his face. ‘It’s strange,’ he says, ‘sitting next to someone who pilots a ship without actually touching the controls. Are you plugged in or something?’
‘It’s all wireless,’ I say. ‘Less secure, but there aren’t any active systems on the surface below. It’s unlikely something will interfere.’
His eyes rest on me for a moment longer and then focus on the flashing display. It doesn’t surprise me: I am perhaps more alien to alien species than any alien species will ever be to me. The concept of artificial intelligence is common enough, but the idea that someone would build an artificial intelligence with inhibitors and simulators that allow an artificial intelligence to act as if it were a living thing with a. . . well, with a ‘soul,’ is classified as either blasphemy or self-destructive madness by most other species.
‘Why do they build you?’ Arkaa asks.
‘Because they can.’
‘Do you think they regret it?’
I adjust the course a little to steer clear of a spontaneous storm of acidic rain. The planet’s climate is volatile, to say the least.
‘Some of them do,’ I say while I maneuver. ‘Many of them see the value we add. But others fear us.’
The shuttle’s shaking grows less intense. The read-outs show we have entered the planet’s atmosphere only a little wide of my estimated entry point. I adjust the course slightly to reflect the changes.
‘Humans are quick to fear.’ Arkaa says.
‘By your standards, that is certainly true.’
Arkaa laughs his tooting laugh. ‘I think the cowardice of humans is the single thing all species of the Spine can agree on, perhaps even humans themselves.’
I laugh at his joke. At times such as these, I am strangely aware of the simulators that make me make this laughing sound.
And I guess I really don’t laugh at all.
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.