Author: David Barber

It is a room inside the mountain-sized Jirt lander, itself tiny compared to their vast craft in orbit.

Franklin sits at a glassy table, on a frail glassy chair, in a cold, translucent space curved like an egg. He has laid out his fountain pen and a folder.

He discovers the table rocks on uneven legs.

Time passes.

>You paid for questions, says a voice.

Franklin jumps and hurries to open the folder. The first of the questions concerns free will.

>It depends on what you mean by have, will, free, and mean…

Franklin’s university was venerable but poor, unable to afford shiny Jirt science. But it had a benefactor in the Milburn Foundation which offered the Milburn Prize for Progress in Philosophy. A quantity of the rare-earth element erbium was paying for this conversation.

Dr Franklin was a compromise between the Regis Chair of Philosophy and the Lady Hall Professor of Ethics. Answers to any of their conundrums would keep the subject limping along for another generation.

“For a price,” he interrupts. “I’ll share my theory about your dealings with humanity.”

>What price?

The Jirt put a price on everything. It was the most human thing about them.

“We get to chat.”

>What about your philosophical problems?

“I’ll make something up.”


“This table. Do many shove folded paper under one leg? Like those Germans in here before?”

>Oh yes.

Franklin shakes his head.

>What is this theory of yours?

“You claim to value erbium, but you don’t.”

Franklin jots a note, then idly rocks the table backwards and forwards.

Wise economists had warned it was a trapper economy, humanity swapping beaver pelts for trinkets. We were eager for their abstract mathematics, cosmological insights and incomprehensible artefacts. The problem was the extinction of the beaver— reserves of erbium dwindled.

>Your species puts a price on everything.

“But why erbium?”

>Some suggested tigers instead. Still, it is not clear what you gain from knowing this.

Franklin smiles wanly. “I’m not talking to a Jirt at all am I?”

>Think of us as staff.

“At school, I was the butt of practical jokes. I was a figure of fun. So I kept my mouth shut. I imagined it was a dignified silence.”

>And the relevance of this?

“Our governments might not play your games if they knew.”

>Without proof, we could deny everything.

Franklin holds up his beautifully handwritten note:


>Yes, you might have an accident.

“Though you can’t know who I’ve told.”

>There is another option.

Franklin seemed not to hear. “And is erbium another of your private jokes?”

>Essential in the commonest interstellar engine. Mining it out reduces the long term competition.

“Should I worry you’ve told me that?”

The room lurches and Franklin’s pen falls to the floor..

>We’ll soon be in orbit. The only win-win strategy is your collaboration. What would you want in return? Gold? Reproductive success? Tigers?

“There is a name for a bargain like that.”

>Many problems in your folder evaporate in the light of knowledge you lack.

“I would like that knowledge,” admits Franklin. “Why do the Jirt treat us like this?”

>They barely know we have stopped. They are a lofty race. Think of this as the staff’s afternoon off.

“I’d be betraying my kind.”

>You would start as cabin boy. I’m afraid it would mean immortality and a higher IQ.

Franklin seems to be struggling to decide, but it was only the last stand of his conscience.

He sighs. “Throw in the tigers and it’s a deal.”