The florescent lighting hung an eerie curtain over the claustrophobic metal room like a rain-teasing sky with darkness on the horizon. I’ve heard that some of the creatures have skin black as night, but the slick flesh of the one sitting across the table from me was nearly translucent and seemed to glow against the sullen grey panels of the walls. At least the skin that I could see. We both wore atmosphere suits. These creatures get their primary source of nitrogen from cyanide making their atmosphere lethal to humans and ours to them so the higher-ups thought it best that we always have these meetings in a vacuum. No home court advantage. It looked like a newborn compared to my leather exterior. Days spent outside in the Arizona sun will do that to you though. I’m guessing it didn’t grow up on a farm. Every meeting with these things had to have these shiny pearl spheres on the table filled with a dark paste that smelled like ammonium. A decorum their society demanded. The spheres always reminded me of tea cups my wife inherited from her grandmother.
I couldn’t tell one of these creatures from the next given the lack of distinctive facial features. And their home-world has half the gravity of Earth so all of them grow tall and narrow compared to humans. But something about this one reminded me of Pauly. I think it was his posture. One shoulder rested a little higher than the other. Pauly secreted arrogance. Thought he could take whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, just because he towered over me. But that changed after high school.
Whenever I hear these things talk it reminds me of a Gila Woodpecker back home carving a cave in the side of a saguaro to escape the midday sun. Sharp taps mixed with the soft whistles of a bird call.
Each of us had a translator but before mine could interpret the creature’s taps and whistles, “I heard a joke once,” I interrupted. “Heard it years ago in Italy. It’s a good one.” The creature’s interpreter started whistling away but I just kept going. “This fella explained to me—if you’re tri-lingual, you speak three languages,” I said holding three fingers next to my helmet. “If you’re bi-lingual,” I continued, folding one finger down, “you speak two languages. And if you’re mono-lingual…” I paused, letting the last finger stand in solidarity, ”…you’re American.” I sat in the silence with a big, dumb grin on my face while the creatures exchanged uncomfortable glances. Its interpreter started whistling but only a blank, unchanging stare met its music. That stare rolled to me when the whistling stopped. It probably messed up the timing. Comedy is all about timing.
The creature sat motionless, staring at me while making a soft, vibrating gurgle sound. It let the discomfort linger just a tad too long like a dinner guest missing the social cues to go home. The intended product of this timing wasn’t for laughs though. And that one shoulder still sat too high. Finally, it whistled its original message again. My interpreter paused this time, expecting a second interruption that never came.
“It,” I said without breaking eye contact with the creature. The boys back home all started calling them “it” rather than “he” or “she.” Giving them a neutral identity makes it easier when the bullets fly.
“IT…” my interpreter repeated, coating the word in frustration, “…says that Earth has no claim to the minerals. They expect us to leave the sector so…” he trailed off mumbling incoherently, looking down and rolling an invisible ball in his hand. My gaze broke when nothing else followed. He searched the room with his eyes for the words that escaped him.
“Well?” I barked. “Out with it!”
“I don’t really know the nuance of it,” he responded nervously, “but a literal translation would be—so that there might be for you…” he paused again, searching the room one more time for the final words, “…not nothingness.” Humans only made contact with the creatures a decade ago so even our best linguists still fumble on the language. But I didn’t need a lexicon to understand this message.
“Try to bully us, will you, you whistling piece of shit? You think you can just come in here and tell us what to do? Take whatever you want? We will cover that moon in your blood before extracting every last gram of mineral on it,” I said inside my head without my fake grin breaking character. “Well, that’s unfortunate,” were the only words to actually leave my mouth. It only took a few taps and whistles to interpret. I let full silence take the spotlight now.
A few months ago I had learned that a lack of sound doesn’t bother this creature’s culture. It simply took my quiet stillness as the end of the conversation. The taps and whistles that it sang into its communication device had a slightly lower pitch, minor tones, and slower cadence. My interpreter’s eyes went wide.
“He…I mean, it…” he stuttered with a nervous staccato.
“I know, son,” I seethed, still staring at the creature. The grin on my face had already walked off stage and pulled back the curtain revealing the hidden fire that said, “Give our boys the green light.” Seven light-years away engines exploded to life and particle acceleration canons spun energy to release in response to the silence that I allowed to linger too long. This thing would not have what it wanted today.
As the creatures slowly walked to the door leading to their ship’s airlock, I remained at the table staring at the spheres. Memories of evenings at home with my wife rolled in like a fog. Every night after dinner, Elizabeth would bring a cup of hot tea and set it in front of me. I would start to gather up the dishes but she would swat my hands with a look half-way between “what do you think you’re doing, you oaf?” and “I love you.” Just one of the small ways that she cared for me so well.
I met the creature’s eyes when it glanced back before ducking into the hatch and, just for an instant, felt a lump in my gut that wondered, “Is he thinking about a loved one too?” But just as quickly as the creature disappeared through the airlock door, my fire consumed the lump.