They are not stars, their heat threatening our flesh every time we draw too close. But they are not planets either- not hard and rocky with metals, or light and noxious with floating gases, or spun silver with a thousand gray seas. They are always a little more like us than we are comfortable with. The surface, soft and malleable like skin. The inside, silky and wet like entrails.
"Strip it for parts!" I, the captain, always yell. The language intentional, the confidence masking the fear we have, afraid to acknowledge this thing as something like us.
We tread over her carefully, with the same focused intention. We see things we recognize, that make us feel safe- ice frosted surfaces, the buildup of dirt or debris, like you might see on an asteroid. A certain gravitational pull, not quite like but mimicking the certainty and strictness that we grew up with in our own separate home planets. And there are always stars, twinkling in the distance, watching over us. So long as we stay on the outside.
But then we find a mouth. Or two. And we venture in, and are confronted with unsettling sights both too familiar and too strange to comprehend. An open eye, the curl of a tendon, the slickness of animal gore. We take what we know to look for- salt blocks from deposits in one tunnel, water diffused from the still running bile along another. We even found that we could use small amounts of the webbing between the bony protrusions as bags, and to detail our small microchips and circuits to conduct electricity more efficiently.
We take what we need and go. Leave the rest as waste. At least, that's the easiest way to think about it. We assure each other she cannot feel pain. She is like a planet, or a moon, or a comet- just another rock for scrapping. But we can never be sure, and few are brave enough to study further. What little curious souls we have stay to the safe areas, the debris, and occasionally the bony protrusions. Nobody dares to investigate the eyes, the mouths, the limbs all jumbled in the wrong places.
We know she is not alive. What we aren't sure of is if she is dead. I, the scientist, took a sample once and peered at it from under a microscope, hoping to dispel some of our fear with knowledge. She has cell-like shapes, all frozen in various stages of reproduction. They look dead. Except that the composition of the masses are all wrong, too much oxygen and chlorine, far too little carbon. If she is dead, she is not dead like how we die. She does not rot, at least, not like how we rot. She just floats, still, through space.
When we finish with them, the most fervent of us pray. We think of candles and crosses and rings, promises of everlasting life and gardens, apocalypses and angels. Every name written in a book, tablet or stone, alighting with warmth, divine strings of fate tying everything together, even something like this.
Most of us, the godless ones, merely look on. We are too kind to take it away from them. We more than anyone know the cold grip of the void on our necks, chilled all the more by the things we have seen. We are sincerely glad for their comfort, even envy them and small lights in their minds that keep their eyes bright, even in the dark.
The hardest of us do not admit that we are broken by the sight of them, unsettled by the beings that we set foot upon, take from, and leave. We feel our hearts stir and our legs kick, some primordial instinct of the past that screams of danger and blood. We have nightmares of them, can still feel their skin and their flesh and their eyes long after we have left their surfaces. We cannot sleep without knowing their names, yet would rather perish than hear whatever cruel voices such a being could possess.
And I, the most weak-hearted, cowardly, lowly one of them (the cadet)- I look upon these giants, these enigmas.
And I feel a little less alone in the unfeeling universe that we insist on traveling through.