Once upon a time a
planet in a far distant galaxy put out its sun.
Not on purpose, of
course. Here is how it happened.
Once the planet had
reached the point of travel within its solar system, it conceived the
brilliant idea of tapping its sun as a source of energy for interplanetary
The advantages of
such a practice seemed myriad. First, enormous quantities of energy were
available at minuscule cost. It was estimated that 40 billion sprinugs of
propulsion power could be delivered for less than 1500 kopags. That would
be the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline for .00073
Second, there was
no other cost effective way to increase the speed of interplanetary travel
enough to make regular trade and intercourse practical. Using conventional
fuels it took, for example, over a year for a spaceship to travel to the
nearest planetary neighbor. The more distant planets took five to seven
years to reach. Using energy mined directly from the sun, the same trips
took five days, a month, and six weeks,
Finally, energy from the sun could be considered, for all
practical purposes, inexhaustible. It was estimated that the first fifty
years of interplanetary travel, leveling off at 157 million flights per
year, would use no more than .0000659874 of the sun's energy.
Even so, twenty-three years of painstaking testing,
debate, and litigation preceded the actual start of commercial mining. The
process was studied from every conceivable angle, until all responsible
scientists pronounced it safe, insofar as existing instruments could
measure it. Computer models showed not the slightest effect on the sun's
continued ability to produce energy. Political support for mining grew as
the energy requirements of interplanetary travel raised the price of
energy to levels which threatened economic stagnation. Enough testing, the
public began to say. Enough litigation. Let's get on with
To satisfy the
timorous, severe restrictions were put on mining for the first fifty
years. The sun's energy was to be used for nothing but a limited number of
interplanetary flights. And a commission of the planet's most eminent
scientists, including those leading the opposition to mining, was set up
to monitor the sun's activity. One word from this commission, and all use
of the sun's energy was to be suspended.
marking the first shipment of energy from the sun's core into vast storage
tanks ringing the planet was marred only by a small group of
demonstrators, the same cranks who ritually oppose all technological
progress, professional naysayers whose ancestors undoubtedly opposed the
introduction of candles on the grounds of air pollution. As the first
fifty years of mining passed, experience proved them wrong, as usual.
Interplanetary travel became routine. Even the outer planets were rapidly
colonized. The population quadrupled. Unemployment, poverty, overcrowding,
shortages of raw materials--all these became memories of the elderly. The
home planet became a luxurious condo complex inhabited by the best and the
brightest. As the populace looked forward to the lifting of all
restrictions on the use of the sun's energy, only more peace, prosperity,
and happiness seemed to lie ahead.
The commission charged with monitoring the sun's activity grew,
understandably, a bit lax in its vigilance as over fifty years went by
with no measurable effect on the sun. Its budget was cut several times,
and the scientists willing to serve on it were no longer of the first
rank. Even so, in the seventy-third year of mining, a junior scientist
monitoring isotopes in the sun's radioactive envelope noted a minuscule
change in the proportion of He423. His report was filed with other reports and
nothing more was said about the
Several more decades of
monitoring revealed a disturbing trend--a slow but unmistakable decrease
in He423. The amounts seemed ludicrously tiny to the
layman--from 15 parts per billion to 14.8429--but eventually the concerns
of a few scientists made their way into scientific journals and the
What was happening? What did
it mean? Not one scientist could state definitively why the proportion of
He423 was declining: whether it was related in any way
to the mining, or whether it was a cycle that occurred naturally and would
reverse itself in due time.
The mining, meanwhile,
A number of
governmental panels came and went, none able to say anything definite
about the phenomenon. In the absence of any proof of danger, or even that
mining the sun's energy was a contributing cause, it seemed irresponsible
to wreak havoc on the lives of the entire populace by halting mining.
People were by now scattered over the entire solar system, dependent for
their survival on regular trade. Conventional fuels were no longer
remotely adequate to the task of servicing this expansion; aside from
considerations of cost, they would be depleted in a matter of months.
Recalling the population to the home planet would be the equivalent of
asking the entire population of the planet Earth to crowd into the state
of New Mexico.
In short, there was
no way to stop mining the sun without killing off three-fifths of the
population and impoverishing the rest.
Even so, at great
political cost, a courageous administration cut the rate of growth in use
of the sun's energy by ten percent. This was considered a victory for the
environmentalists who, never satisfied, demanded fifteen percent cuts.
Trillions of kopags were invested in a search for alternative energy
sources, and for the first time high taxes were slapped onto the sun's
energy to discourage use.
Just in time for the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the
start of mining, scientists finally agreed on what was happening. Mining
had a totally unforeseen effect on the fusion process within the sun, one
which had not been measurable by instruments available a hundred and fifty
years earlier. The removal of each trillion sprinugs of energy resulted in
the creation of one atom of a new element called
Ka73, apparently through a complex series of reactions
brought about by an almost imperceptibly minuscule decrease in thermal
energy in a given region of the sun's core. Scientists estimated that in
the first hundred and fifty years of mining about 612 of these atoms had
been created. Ka73 had the unfortunate tendency
to unite with He423 to form contigunite, a new
substance which seemed to act as a damper on fusion
Not to worry, of course. A
hundred and fifty years of mining had produced, at most, .039 of a gram of
contigunite, which, in relation to the sun's total energy, was like
pouring an eighth of a drop of water onto a burning skyscraper. Still, a
certain unease crept in. A few scientists retained by environmental groups
pointed out that the effect would progress geometrically, since even
minuscule amounts of contigunite would result in local decreases in
thermal energy, which would create more atoms of
Ka73, which would unite with more
He423 to create more contigunite, and so on. Scientists
began to calculate the effects of a .029% drop in temperature in the next
century. Some meteorologists claimed that the cooling trend had already
set in, but most believed that it was still generations
The mining continued.
governmental commission was established to perform a cost/benefit analysis
of the situation. It decided that even a 3.79% drop in temperature over
the next three hundred years (the worst-case scenario given a 20%
reduction in energy use) would wreak less havoc than a total suspension of
mining. In other words, the consequences of continuing to mine at reduced
levels were preferable to the consequences of stopping mining
The entire solar
system slid into recession as 20% cuts in energy use took hold. A crash
program was instituted to reach beyond the solar system so as to be able
to mine nearby stars. People wondered vaguely what life would be like for
their great-great grandchildren. Some were suffused with a discomforting
sense of guilt. Others professed to be unwilling to endure continued
privation for the sake of generations unborn. As always, a few cranks
boycotted all interplanetary trade and travel, achieving nothing more than
an ostentatious stroking of their own egos.
Two hundred thirty years after the start of mining, a computer
model showed that once a certain critical mass of contigunite had been
achieved, the process of shutting down the sun's fusion would become
irreversible, and the sun would, over the course of centuries, go out. The
critical mass projected by the model was alarmingly small, only twelve
grams, an amount which some scientists believed had already been reached
through geometric progression. Others scoffed at the model. The mass of
the sun was, after all, over 2 x 1030 kgs. How could twelve grams of any substance be a
mass critical enough to affect so massive a
Even so, there were cries for an immediate cessation of
mining. Who knew what day, what hour, what second the critical moment
would pass? The government forced through an additional 30% cut in energy
use, phased in over five years, over the objections of politicians from
the outer planets. Efforts to reach the nearest stars, to remove
contigunite from the sun, and to make each planet self-sufficient,
consumed much of the solar system's wealth. Society came under military
discipline, with everything rationed, and summary execution for theft,
profiteering, and waste of resources.
Some hope stirred
over the next few decades as several planets approached self-sufficiency.
Eighty billion sprinugs of energy went into an exploratory flight to the
nearest star. A process for removing contigunite from the sun was tested
successfully in a controlled fusion experiment, and plans were made to put
an extraction facility in orbit around the sun. No one actually believed
that the ultimate catastrophe, extinction of all life in the solar system,
and as far as anyone knew in the universe, would actually come to pass.
Technology had, perhaps, gotten them into this mess, but surely the
massive and refined application of technology over the course of several
generations would get them out.
To think otherwise
would be to go mad.
Two hundred and
seventy years after the start of mining, a new technique was developed for
measuring the total amount of contigunite on the
The entire solar
system shuddered with both horror and relief. Horror that now mining would
have to be stopped and at the privations that would follow. Relief that
the critical mass had not yet been achieved.
interplanetary trade and travel ended. Scarce resources were directed
towards transporting refugees from the outer planets. The mentally ill and
retarded, the physically handicapped, the diseased, and the elderly were
simply abandoned. People lived heaped up on one another like ants. Only
one out of fifty couples was permitted to have a single child. No one had
hope anymore for happiness in this or the next generation. Still, the
surviving remnant was willing to suffer extreme privation in good spirits.
Computer models showed that in the absence of mining contigunite levels
would begin to decline. Life was therefore saved. That was the main thing.
What had happened to them was a mere historical incident. They had learned
their lesson. Never again would they take even the most infinitesimal risk
of extinction simply for an increase in material well
Their feeling was
much like that of a drunk driver who, after crashing into a tree, is
relieved still to be alive and almost grateful for the suffering that will
deter him from ever driving drunk again.
Yet the following
decades saw no decline in contigunite. In fact, the total mass of
contigunite on the sun continued relentlessly to increase. Since there was
still no measurable effect on temperature, the danger which so many people
were suffering and dying to avert seemed somewhat arcane. There was, in
fact, a lunatic fringe that saw the entire contigunite scare as a
conspiracy, and talked darkly of clandestine energy use and hidden riches.
But most people simply watched in horror as the numbers went up: 11.4
grams, 11.6 grams, 11.7 grams, and so on.
It turned out that the computer model which had predicted 12
grams as the point of self-generation had not taken into account two
phenomena which had been recently discovered. Refining the model to
reflect the migration of two electrons of Ul792 to an inner orbit and the splitting of
.00000000069347% of the Ul393 atoms into Fo467 and Zk293, two events which could not even have been
guessed at before the invention of the Ergon Medio-Hylometer, resulted in
a revised prediction of 11.1349652 grams of contigunite as the point of no
In other words, sorry folks! Guess you stopped mining a
couple of months too late.
Or, you should have
known that science was not an exact science.
In the riots and
revolutions that ensued, civilization was destroyed, and so all chance of
finding a method to remove the contigunite, or of mining stars beyond the
solar system, was lost.
Over the next
hundred years, as temperatures began to drop, the population also began a
long decline. There seemed no point in having children, no point in
starting or maintaining institutions, no point in anything when the only
result in the near term was extinction.
People once again
Death became a
that the end, ultimately, had always been extinction. The only question
had been the relatively trivial one of when.
generations of turmoil, they were at peace with themselves and with
nature. Despite lives of great privation, they became grateful to the
catastrophe for teaching them this truth.
The end came
quietly as temperatures dipped below levels tolerable for life. The
several hundred thousand survivors on the home planet died of hunger and
exposure over the course of three exceptionally severe winters. The last
person, of course, had no idea that she was the last
The dying sun shone
wanly on the dead world.
One thousand four
hundred and thirty-seven years, five months, and three days after the
start of mining, the sun went out.