Turning off the deserted highway, James Stipanuk held a stabilizing hand over his coffee as he guided the truck along an uneven gravel road. The narrow road slithered through quiet countryside until it terminated near the horizon at a gleaming black structure that pierced the chilled sky like a cloud-crowned monument.
Approaching the end, he eased on the brakes as he neared a portable checkpoint office and flimsy white gate, which was always lifted.
Five years ago, many world governments formed an accord with the visitors from space. The visitors sought resources, minerals. Despite technological superiority and an elegant military, the visitors insisted upon cooperation to acquire those resources. They proposed using their knowledge of planet husbandry and advanced resource cultivation methods to become a sort of large scale mining contractor; a majority of resources culled would remain with humans while a percentage would be due to the visitors as payment. Most human governments eventually agreed. As a result Earth thrived and the visitors procured that which they desired, all whilst avoiding conflict. Everyone won.
Bringing the truck to a stop, James rested his elbow in the open window and watched the office’s opaque windows for movement. “Rise and shine, Goudi!”
A lone red light blinked on the end of the gate. Beyond it sprawled a uselessly massive parking lot at the foot of the cloud-capped structure which housed an intricate extraterrestrial mineral refinery. Most of it was automated.
James considered the lot as he had many times. How many humans work here? Ten? Twenty? The checkpoint door creaked, drawing his attention. Waste of asphalt.
A bent figure emerged from the door and unfolded. Generally austere and taciturn, the visitors were like willowy mole crickets with an intrinsic reluctance to bond with humans. James disliked them all, except Goudi. Goudi was like that dorky cousin who rarely spoke but was secretly cool.
Smiling fondly, James showed his employee badge. “Mornin’.”
Every check-in over the past three years had transpired the same way: Goudi vocalized a broken greeting in basic English, took the badge in long smooth fingers to stare at the hexagon of alien hieroglyphs beside James’ image for several minutes with his flat face less than an inch away, and then handed it back. It gave James plenty of time to study the dork. What’d he find most striking about him? His breathing. Goudi respired in long, loud sighs bearing the semblance of a tornado being funneled through a PVC pipe.
But this check-in was different. Goudi’s slim arms hung slack with his long spine hunched forward severely to place his face in the window, wearing an uncharacteristically imploring expression. He said nothing.
“Somethin’ wrong?” Awaiting a response, James heard only silence as deep as a vacuum. Is he holding his breath? “Hey, breathe, buddy.”
The visitor stared blankly.
Gesturing, James demonstrated with exaggeration. “Air, breathe.”
A moment passed before the cavernous sound of his inhale resumed.
“There you go.” James smiled with a chuckle. “See, I like you, Goudi. You’ve gotta keep breathing, okay? You okay?”
Goudi glanced briefly at the badge which the engineer shook, but didn’t take it.
Wow. All right… “Okay, Goudi. Later, bud!”
Pulling through the checkpoint, James flicked a frown at the rearview. His gatekeeping pal lingered stiffly in the road, gazing after the truck.