There was a rock in Alan Gunnel’s boot but he was too nervous to try and dig it out. Bruce Finch meanwhile was holding in a bowel movement and Ryan Kaczka was thinking what it would take to knock down all the trees and build a race track. It was Mrs. Corbin’s idea the men should all hold shovels, so the Ouranoi knew they meant business, she said, but also so they could better tell the laborers apart from the ambassadors and the television crew. When the men weren’t looking toward the sky they were scanning the rocks and the scrub. Tom Dietrich had found an old rifle casing so now everybody was on the lookout for some piece of the battle, some memento to bridge the gap between theirs and their grandfather’s generation, to assure them that, yes, despite growing fatter and softer and never having to worry about war or hunger, they were still the same species of man. Ed Finch, who was Bruce’s cousin, thought he saw something glinting in the weeds but it was just the sun on the dew.
It was 8:55 when one of the television crew pointed it out, a faint, dark spot puttering across the blue. Mrs. Corbin and the government people all put themselves in order, to which Charlie Stern, the foreman, commanded his men to do the same. Standing up straight, resituating their collars and gripping their shovels, they brushed up against that feeling of being a soldier. They watched the ship carve an elegant streak of white above the mountains then double back on itself as it descended, toward a patch of ground that’d been stamped out ahead of time into a landing pad. As it set down there was none of the jostling or general rickety quality of an earth ship; it moved like a pat of butter across a hot skillet. The ship sat there a minute, humming, a sheen of ice still clinging to the hull. The television crew seemed to have a hard time photographing it.
The engine quit and the ship opened and the first one out lead the way in acclimating to the planet, a process of opening what counted for his nose and mouth in such a way it looked like he was warbling a silent, impassioned aria. Pete Calabrese said to Alan Gunnel it was the ugliest looking thing he’d ever seen.
When that first one was finished he turned and signaled the rest to follow. They were five in all, not counting the pilot. One of the Ouranoi was markedly older than the others and had to be helped to acclimate by his nurse. There were deep pale scars knotting up the left side of his face and while the others all looked like they were singing he looked like he was screaming. It took him longer to get his breathing right, but once he did he settled into a deep, bovine repose. He scratched his chest as if to fondle the air in his lungs and observed the place, the people, like it was all just an obstacle to him taking a nap.
Mrs. Corbin, flanked by her attaché, stepped forward and, unsure of who to address first, spread her deference equally among the Ouranoi. She had a clear, ingratiating voice and a daring, cards on the table smile, but enough sense not to stray too far into whatever body language wasn’t included in an Ouranoi handbook for Earth custom. One of the Ouranoi, the leader in breathing the air, identified himself and a partner as from the government. Ouranoi speak English like it pains them, like they’re spitting hot coals from their tongue. Their voice, their appearance, was such that, the war aside, it was, according to men like Ryan Kaczka, only natural to be prejudice against them, the way a boot is prejudice against the spider. A shudder ran through him as the Earth and Ouranoi ambassadors shook hands, as they rubbed their legs together like each was one half of a cricket.
“The women,” he said, pointing to the Ouranoi nurse. “A friend of mine says the women click their teeth like castanets when you touch them just right.”
He got some of the other men to laugh but then Charlie Stern overheard and upbraided him. He’d fought tooth and nail for the contract, he said, and wouldn’t let anyone ruin it.
The introductions, the formalities, were all rather painstaking. The tenor could never be too patriotic, nor to conciliatory, nothing that might upset or suggest weakness in one side or the other. It was warm milk to the television crews, who were after even just a sliver of the bombs, the death. They trained the majority of their cameras the majority of the time on the worn and ravaged face of the old Ouranoi man, who never spoke nor was made to speak. After the introductions the Earth and Ouranoi delegates went off on their own and the old Ouranoi man, his nurse, and what turned out to be his son, sat beside their ship, passing back-and-forth what appeared to be some kind of dried fruit. The son kept leaning across the nurse to speak in a hurried patter at his father, to which the old Ouranoi man, maintaining a dreamy gaze out over the field, would languidly flex the fins at the top of his head, what counted for the Ouranoi nod. Rob Lingenfelter was trying to listen in but could only make out every other word. His grandfather had been a translator during the war.
“Something about money,” he said. “Something about money and somebody’s mother or something.”
The men stood at some distance under a nylon canopy, smoking cigarettes and on the whole in generally good spirits for so far getting paid to stand around doing nothing. Alan Gunnel finally dug the rock out of his boot and Bruce Finch went to use the bathroom.
“Now he’s saying something about the weather. Something about the air. Don’t know if it’s complementary or not.”
“All sounds like mush to me,” said Ryan Kaczka.
“A lot of it’s just the same couple of sounds and once you get those you can start picking up on things.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to learn I just said it sounded like mush.”
“I’m going to go try and talk to them.”
The other men all watched Rob Lingenfelter stub out his cigarette, fix his hair. He was young and excitable, irritating in an admirable sort of way. He had screws in his leg from a four wheeling accident and was half deaf in one ear from standing too close to a homemade firework.
“Charlie said not to bother them,” said Alan Gunnel.
“Not going to bother them I’m just going to talk to them. I never met one before.”
The other men wanted to see what would happen and gave up trying to reel him in. The son of the old Ouranoi man frowned as he approached; the nurse crossed her legs. Rob Lingenfelter greeted them first in English then in Ouranoi, then stuck out his hand, which the son shook, the nurse squeezed, and the old man observed a moment, as if some curious piece of driftwood, then took in both of his. The old Ouranoi man whispered something over their grasp.
“What’d he say?” asked Rob Lingenfelter. “I didn’t catch all that.”
The son muttered a reply but Rob Lingenfelter couldn’t understand that either.
“Do any of you speak English? I know some Ouranoi but not enough. My granddaddy was a translator and he––”
Rob Lingenfelter didn’t know he was speaking as loud as he was. He was used to speaking like that because of his ear, because he spent all day working with loud machinery. The nurse plugged her ears and turned away from him. The son waved a hand and let slip a war-time insult, which was, unluckily, one of the couple dozen words in Rob Lingenfelter’s Ouranoi vocabulary.
“Come again?” He observed the nurse, the son. The old Ouranoi man seemed to’ve already forgotten him and was staring somewhere off into the distance. “Do any of you speak English?” He tried them in their own language but the reaction wasn’t any better. “Alright then,” he said. “Alright,” and went away a lot less enthusiastically than he arrived. He rejoined the men and lit another cigarette.
“How’d it go?” asked Alan Gunnel.
“Couldn’t understand them. Just a bunch of mush.”