Canaries

Trent never committed a crime, but he found himself a convict anyway. Wasn’t uncommon. He’d heard one in five citizens across the empire was a convict now—more than starvation, or even Phlox Syndrome. It was probably all exaggerated, but for every grain of salt there was a grain of truth to go with it.

The shuttle hit dirt hard and settled only briefly before the rover rolled out. There was nothing to see—no windows—but the terrain was rough. Trent jostled around, locked in his seat with his fellow convicts in the rover’s hold. It’d be hard labor until they dropped. He wondered if the work would at least be useful, or if the rest of his days would consist of digging the same hole over and over, always filling it back up with the same scoops of dirt, in and out and in and out until one day he fell in and the next con took up his shovel and buried him for good.

Probably the latter.

The rover eventually lurched to a stop. The guards came through—remotes, every one of them. Seven-foot skeletons made on tungsten and graphene and antihelium controlled by neuroware from orbit or the next room or a sub-sub-basement buried beneath a mountain on Primus Rex; who was to say? They made a chain gang of the convicts—like there was anywhere to go—and marched them out of the rover.

Some nameless penal colony. Trent didn’t recognize it, but he’d never left his home planet before, so that didn’t count for much. It was dark. Heavy fog. Hot and humid as could be. Smelled like rubber.

Marched over hard terrain for an hour or so before he saw it. Shit, maybe they were doing something useful here after all. There was a massive half-built arcology wrapped in a thick blanket of mist. Trent elbowed the guy next to him; didn’t look much older than himself, but more rundown, like his years had been longer than Trent’s. “It’s construction then.”

But the guy shook his head. “It’s not going up, it’s coming down.”

“What?”

“This is a Relic world, son. Thing’s been here a billion years.”

For a moment Trent forgot who he was felt a flash of excitement. “This is an alien dig site? Are we excavating?”

“Hell, kid; we’re the canaries. Leave me alone.”

The line marched forward.

Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Kynan Voyeaud, used with permission.

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