The Merchants

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Six months ago, on a Monday morning, Earth received its first clue that we are not alone in the universe. It took the form of an enormous billboard projected above India, visible for hundreds of miles in all directions. Our satellites showed that it was not a solid object; in fact, it was not even visible from orbit, only from the ground. The technology required for such a feat was staggering, and the people of Earth craned their necks from their streets and windows and trembled.

It scrolled in forty languages, beginning with Hindi, Mandarin, and English, in letters hundreds of miles across, bearing the first message Earth had ever received from an extraterrestrial intelligence. In English, it read:


The people of Earth scratched their heads and looked at each other, puzzled. There were no riots. Leaders of the major religions issued statements stating that it did not appear to be a message from God or gods. World governments denied responsibility while simultaneously beaming every message they could think of into space, at the billboard, at the moon, everywhere. Yes! all the messages read. We’ll take one!

It was Seoul who first reported success, and it was the Koreans who coined the common name for our new friends. “We have initiated contact with the merchants, and are currently negotiating a purchase of technology.” They then went on for some time about the greatness of Korea and its people, but the only thing that entered public consciousness was the name. The Merchants were here, and they were selling miracles.

The western world continued their attempts at contact without success. No one knew how Korea had initiated their negotiations, and they were being unusually tight-lipped about it. In the western world, the official line was that Korea claimed to be in contact with the Merchants, but of course no one knew for sure.

Tensions rose as the week progresses, since the billboard only advertised a one-week sale. World governments brought in the top salesmen in the world, who assured them that this was simply a sales tactic. Earth had plenty of time. Still, anxiety mounted on Friday. Did the Merchants keep normal business hours? If so, what time zone were they referring to? What was a “week” to an alien?

At 5 PM New Delhi time exactly, while five billion people watched the sky or their television sets, the sign changed its message:


It scrolled this text once per language and then blinked out, leaving the entire population of Earth with their mouths hanging open. The various heads of staff glared at their sales consultants, who shrugged. “There’s always another sale,” they said, but with less certainty this time. The nations of earth talked among themselves, attempting to figure out what had happened, until we received a radio transmission within the hour, this time from the moon. It said “Hello to Earth from the Republic of Korea!”

Earth was flabbergasted. And that was before we learned the price.

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