Author : Bob Newbell

The captain repeatedly tapped his mesothoracic exoskeleton contemplatively and looked out the main viewport at the blue and white planet below. Two-thirds of the surface was underwater and its atmosphere was over 20 percent oxygen. How could life, let alone civilization, have developed on such an inhospitable world? He imagined what it would be like to set tarsal pad on such a planet without a spacesuit. A few moments of unfathomable agony followed in quick succession by unconsciousness and death. And yet down there was exactly where he was going. In less than half a cycle he would be standing right in front of…them.

The group with whom he would be meeting called themselves the United Nations Security Council. The ship’s interpretation computer had some difficulty in rendering a translation. This world did not have a single, unified hive-government but a collection of “nation-states”. The computer could approximate the words, but not the underlying meaning. But more alarming than either the murderous environment of the planet or the inhabitant’s odd patchwork of political authority was the appearance of the dominant species.

The captain waved a carpal pad at a control and a holographic image appeared in front of him. At the sight of it, he suppressed a shudder. They called themselves “humans”. This particular human, the United Nations representative with whom he had communicated only a few cycles earlier, was a female of the species. It was like something out of a horror story. A soft, pale integument covered its face. When it spoke, its jaws moved up and down rather than from side to side. Its skeleton was on the inside, not the outside. But the most disturbing thing about this ghastly, inside-out creature was its eyes. The thing gazed at him not with gracefully recessed, multifaceted eyes, but with glistening, bulging orbs of white with brown irises.

That, thought the captain as he looked at the monstrous alien before him, is why we’re out here. We could have done this across interstellar distances with radio waves or lasers. We could have sent robotic probes in our place. But that wouldn’t have been true exploration. We came here to see what The Other is like. To literally see it. To set all four tarsal pads on another world, walk up to an intelligent alien, and look it…in the eye.

“Disgusting,” said the navigator in a low voice. He was looking at the human in the hologram. “Nightmarish,” whispered the communications officer.

Suddenly, the captain snapped his elytra closed over his vestigial wings. The bridge became silent. He turned to his crew. “We’re going down there,” he said sternly. “We’re going to make first contact with those people. And they are people. Don’t forget that. This isn’t some science fiction story where ‘aliens’ look and act like us. This is reality.”

Elytra snapped closed all over the bridge in response. The captain had made his point.

“Don your encounter suits,” the captain ordered. “Navigator, begin de-orbit sequence.”

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