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Babel's End

Jean-Louis Trudel is a Canadian science fiction author who mostly writes in French, but also pens stories in English on occasion. Since 1984, over a hundred of his short stories have been published in various countries and languages, but he has also tried his hand at novels, YA books, poetry, translation, and criticism. Though his background is in physics and astronomy, which he still looks back on fondly, he now teaches history at the university level, most frequently the history of technology.

"This is how the takeover will happen."
"The conquest, you mean?"
"Think of it as an expropriation. We will compensate the rights holders and affected parties, such as you."
The alien was sitting with me inside a spaceship orbiting Earth. That the creature looked like a smiling Buddha did not comfort me, precisely because it seemed intended to put me at ease. That wasn't going to happen. I'd seen the Earth reduced to a small blue-white disk in the room's porthole. Even as an illusion, it sealed the deal. Creating a flawless virtual reality was as impressive as transporting an old man like me from home office to spaceship in an instant.
"What rights holders?"
"We are obligated to work with a planet's existing system. On your world, we will offer appropriate reparations to land and intellectual property owners, states, other sovereign entities, and the creditor class."
"I should have known aliens would be capitalists," I muttered disgustedly. "The rich always seemed to live on another planet."
"The takeover starts with the introduction of your species to...."
The next word escaped me. My puzzlement must have been obvious, for my host elaborated.
"It's one of our standard trade goods. A better one than chocolate or any of your lesser intoxicants."
"A capitalist and a drug dealer."
The Buddha's smile did not waver.
"Don't worry, you'll get your share."
"Because I'm a translator?"
Every translator on Earth had gotten an email from our next owners. With a link that I had clicked for the fun of it. Next thing I knew, I was having tea with an alien in a starship orbiting Earth. Reality or hallucination, that mattered less than the reason for my presence.
"Yes," the entity replied with inhuman patience. "Translators rank as injured parties since the next step involves all humans learning a version of our trade language."
How many translators were learning just now, in a version of the same starship with the same entity (or a close facsimile thereof), that their occupation was doomed?
I did not ask how the new management team was going to teach everybody a new language. Could they really tamper with nine billion brains at once? I was afraid the answer would reveal the pitiful limits of my own imagination.
"Is it really necessary?"
"Your new names will simplify our recordkeeping. And you won't need translators to understand our instructions. Or the sales pitch of our product reps. That is why we will be compensating you handsomely with a first delivery of..."
Once again, the extraterrestrial visitor uttered the word that I'd been unable to grasp previously, as if I were hearing it underwater. This time, it was clearer, nearly resolving into recognizable sounds. Like a word that can cut through a bar's hubbub, if the noise lets up for a second or if it is spoken a bit louder.
My own brain was being reshaped... I thought of Europeans who had bought future cities with trinkets. I now understood the natives who had agreed. No offer was too low when it could not be refused.
At least I would find out what tasted better than chocolate.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 1st, 2021

Author Comments

I set myself the challenge of writing a story about extraterrestrials of flash fiction length. Which was a challenge as I'm a universe builder who likes to set up an entire world before telling the story. It's hard to come up with a new SF angle on aliens, so I decided to write what I know, as every writing manual tends to advise (before adding provisos). Since I have been a freelance translator, I wondered how translators might find themselves on the front lines of a classic, or not so classic, extraterrestrial invasion. The rest of the tale followed quickly from that initial question.

- Jean-Louis Trudel
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