Star Donkey

By Jason Gibbs

Kael’s head slammed into the back of his helmet.  The stars spun.  Darkness tried to claim him.  Suddenly he was bathed in light, his little ship had twisted to face the sun, but was still spinning making the sun shift in odd ways.  A headache was building behind his eyes.

“Alpha one, do you read me?  Dammit Jole, what is going on?”

The last thing he remembered was approaching the object.  It was a giant cylinder, pointed towards the sun.  It was the first alien artefact humanity had seen, and all the expectations of seamless joins and matt black smart coatings had been dashed.  It looked like nothing so much as a piece of junk, cobbled together by a crazed inventor.  He’d prepared a speech to rival Armstrong’s, but as he neared the thing the words stuck in his mouth.  Then something invisible reached out and thrust his little craft violently away.  He tried to clear his head.

“Alpha one, please respond.  Where are you?”

“Alpha one here.  Please report Falcon.  Are you alright?”

Relief flooded through him, but, damn, it hurt to speak.

“I’m fine, I hurt a bit, but… no I’m OK.  I don’t know what happened, did you see anything?”

“We saw you approach, and then it was like you were slapped away.  Nothing visible.  A forcefield?  It didn’t affect any of the telemetry.  We saw that ugly pile of junk.  I wonder what it is…”

It’s an automated magnetic flux extraction and vessel reabsorption station.

“Um, was that you Falcon?”

“No…”

I am PK.  I run this facility.  I do hope our automated defence system caused you no permanent damage, but I must ask that you do not approach within ten thousand kilometres of our station.  For your own safety.

It was an alien, a proper real, non-Earth based sentient.  Eloquence was sadly lost, and the best he could manage was: “What?  Where are you from?  What do you want from us?”

All of Kael’s training was failing him.  The xenologists back on Earth had given him so many ways of approaching this, it was First Contact after all.  But none of them had anticipated this, whatever it was.

My planet’s name would mean nothing to you, and you only have a random set of characters naming my star.  We need nothing from you.  This facility will run for ten thousand years.  It’s only a short-term extraction, but with reuse we’ve got the cost of these facilities down to something reasonable now, so it’s net positive on the pay back to roll them out aggressively, even for stars like yours which will play out so quickly.

“Alpha One are you copying this?”

Kael’s brain had overloaded.  He had so many questions, he just didn’t know which one to ask, so he’d resorted to protocol: always make sure you have witnesses to back up your story.

“We copy you Falcon.  We continue to acknowledge your lead.”

Well that was very kind of them, now wasn’t it?

“Um PK, can I ask how you can speak our language and know our units, kilometres and years?”

Exploration did a brief survey of your planet when we agreed to deploy the project here.  I had to update the pack which is why I couldn’t contact you immediately after you were repulsed.”

Suddenly something the alien said jumped to the fore of his mind.

“Wait, what do you mean the star will be played out?”

The extraction engine will have consumed so much of the magnetic energies that the star will collapse.  There might be a mini-nova, but probably not a lot.

“In ten thousand years?”

At most.  Based on the magnetic fluctuations we’re seeing within the extraction process it might be only two thousand, which I can tell you is going to wreck the budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if heads don’t roll.  Still not my problem, I’m off to the next installation shortly.”

“You’re telling me that this machine is going to destroy the Sun in possibly two thousand years.”

I can see why Cultural Assessment decided not to invest any effort in your civilisation.  Yes.  Star, gone, two thousand years.  Look, I’m really busy, and I have to leave shortly.  Wait, I know, sorry about this, I should have played this to you first.  Bye.”

Some music played.  Kael tried shouting, but the music was drowning him out, and he doubted Alpha One could hear him.  The music faded and was replaced with a melodic, androgynous voice speaking, a message which was repeated endlessly, and over which Kael was unable to make himself heard.

“This is the [garbled] Mining and Extraction Corporation.  Congratulations, your system has been chosen for an extraction pump.  It will mine energy from your star and provide it to the interstellar community and help improve the lives of trillions of sentients across the galaxy.  We determined your civilisation was in a low-value category, and therefore ineligible for either payment or consultation, if there has been an error in grading, please raise it with the local civilisation assessment office.  In the meantime, you may notice some secondary effects in your star, ultimately culminating in its collapse, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

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