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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.


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