Author: David Barber

These were the years we ransacked our world for things to trade for the Jirt science we envied so much.

Véronique Aubert was a compromise. She was, in her own estimation, a minor composer in the minimalist tradition of last century. The European Union had included her when other delegations had focused on scientists, diplomats and canny moguls.

Her selection spoke of wrangling behind the scenes, the Old World slipping further behind in everything but its pretensions and history.

On the Jirt craft, the gravity was low and the oxygen content high, and she had to concentrate to stop herself bouncing like an excited child on her birthday.

The Jirt Princess, motionless as a statue in the middle of this vast chamber, suddenly chattered her mouthparts.

The translator waited respectfully before speaking. Gallingly for Véronique, its English was better than her own.

“Her Highness says the sounds you offered, this Bach, Mozart and others, have no trade value.”

The translator resembled a soft giant tortoise with a wizened little face.

“The Jirt find these sounds meaningless,” it confided. “Like your storytelling.”

Véronique had learned that while Jirt were taciturn, their translators liked to chat.

“The one called Hamlet,” continued the creature. “Emphasises the distinction between translating and interpreting. A most difficult task. I am enjoying it.”

“You are enjoying Hamlet?”

“Translating it.”

It was obvious these negotiations were over and she should leave, but still she did not.

“The Jirt have no interest in your cultural artefacts, yet you persist. You do know they lack…”

The creature trailed away. “Your word eludes me.”

Intrigued, Véronique waited.

“Like when one antenna tastes hatching and the other tastes dying.”

Now she was at a loss also. Knowing each English word was no help in understanding.

“Perhaps yūgen in your Nippon language.”

She had once composed a piece based on traditional Japanese music and recalled the term: A profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe.

“Ah, soulful, you mean.”

“Soul, yes.”

The huge Jirt was lifting each of her six legs in turn, fidgeting like a horse that was bored and fretful, making a scraping noise like a blade being sharpened.

Absently, Veronique considered its musical possibilities.

“Her Highness complains we are not making progress. She invites offers for a weak-force pump—”

More bargaining for alien technology we do not understand. In exchange, the Jirt accept slave workers, or rare earth elements. So far, we only traded rare earths.

“They seek a use for you, as they do with every subject race. Their dynasties skirmish with one another; they trade and conquer, and prize power for its own sake.”

It sounded like most of human history.

“We serve the Jirt but pity them. Lacking souls, they invent themselves instead.”

“I don’t understand.”

Was it saying the Jirt ran soulless bureaucracies, with no art of their own? Or was it something more elusive, lost in translation?

“I mean we can hear our god. Though ours is a small god, as befits our status.”

“Are you talking about a chip in your head?” ventured Véronique.

“A curious notion.”

The translator glanced at the Jirt Princess.

“The Jirt do not survive death. A defect that is rare in sentients. Mostly such species do not realise. How could they? But their societies are always greedy and violent. The Jirt often cull them. Your kind should be careful.”

Véronique studied the creature’s face but it held no clue.

She began to wonder what she would tell them back on Earth. She wondered what the translator would tell the Jirt.