“Sir! Sir! There’s a problem with the zoological research drones at GXH-927J! They’re malfunctioning!”

“927J…” his boss mumbled, his flaps buzzing. “I wasn’t aware we had any active drones in that system.”

“We’re not supposed to, that’s the problem! The local civilization had achieved nuclear fission, so a self-destruct signal was sent to the data analyst, sixty years ago. It went offline shortly after.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“It didn’t destroy its drones first. Or it only destroyed some of them. Whatever happened, there are still active drones in the area, at least a dozen. Since the analyst was offline, we didn’t get any more signals from the system, and no one had any reason to check further. But an observer recently entered the planet’s orbit and sent back its first report. A number of drones are still active.”

His boss dismissed his concerns with a wave of a pedipalp. “So a few animals are getting picked up and released. I’ve seen those drones in action. The locals won’t even notice they’re there. Take it up with the sector chief and let her deal with it.”

“They’re not going after animals, sir! Drones are programmed to prioritize new species, in order t-”

“I know their programs. Just who do you think was responsible for that last 0.5% increase in efficiency?”

“Yes, sir. What I’m saying is, the drones aren’t intelligent enough to distinguish between sentient and insentient species, they just grab them and gather data. They’re usually directed by the data analyst, which keeps them from abducting sentients, but in its absence…”

“Oh, no,” his boss realized. The amount of paperwork this would cause… He’d receive a demerit… Or worse, be called into meetings to explain all this…

“Exactly. The only major species the drones haven’t yet analyzed is the local civilization, and there’s no data analyst to change their classification from unknown to known. So far as the drones are concerned, they’re a populous, interesting, unknown species: exactly what they like. They’ve been abducting sentients for decades at this point, studying them and then dropping them off. Some of the studies take days. There’s no telling what sort of effect they’ve had on the local civilization.”

“And at such a critical stage.  We’ll be lucky if they don’t make themselves extinct.  Is there anything we can do? Immediately?”

“The observer has no way of destroying them, and the drones only listen to data analysts. It’ll take decades for a new one to reach them, and that’s if it launched today. Going through the proper procedures, it could be-”

“Centuries…” he intoned gravely. His underling remained silent. “Well, let’s get started. And let’s hope they never find out the truth.”

“The locals, sir?”

“Oh, yes, yes.  Them, too.”

Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed it, you can find more of my stories here!

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