By Alasdair Keith
We were marched down from the HMS Glory.
A new world.
New beginnings. Yet, at the same time, no change at all.
Ald Hux Colony I: our new home. Another faceless, featureless wilderness. Will-o-the-wisps, producing foggy phantasmagorias — a familiar sight. Just as with the other three planets I’d been trafficked to, the landscape was somewhat like a Turner painting. He was a remnant from the legacy of Mother Earth, having lived there during the First British Empire.
The Second British Empire was now well under way. This new empire seemed to have lost none of the rapacity or volatility of the original. At least I felt so, unable to conceive of anything worse.
Evo Chavez claimed that it could be worse. He used to be a part of Colonia Española III until he was traded, with 1.5 million others, to the Brits. According to Evo, the Conquistadors used to deprive their workers of clean water, and that we should be thankful for our 20ml allowance.
I certainly was thankful for that. It was the great Sir Adam Asquith who had ensured that we workers were provided with our 20ml of clean water a day, describing our previous deprivation as a “disgrace” and a “scandal.” He became a hero to us workers, a champion of the poor and desperate. I too joined in with the gratitude. But then one day it was pointed out to me that Sir Adam Asquith, a diamond merchant, had made his money out of our toil.
That changed everything.
The person who had pointed it out — a Mongoloid man who had been born in the space-ship yards of Theia — was long gone. He was declared a faulty commodity and duly “removed.” A well-worn motto of our masters was that they only liked “Workers who Work.”
This man’s death — in life called Minh Võ Giáp, in death designated as Thought-Corrupted Subject 2233 — had been of great impact to me. He was an elderly man with a smiling mouth and sad eyes. At night, instead of getting some well-needed sleep, Minh would teach me how to read and write; he would teach history, politics, and economics. Once I was adequately learned, we would then sit in the evenings and discuss our plights, discuss a better future. There had certainly been nothing wrong with his thought processes; before he taught me, he had been the only worker able to read and write within our colony.
Our masters read and wrote.
“Get moving, Ponty!” I heard before I felt a sharp nudge. It was one of our overseers — this one a particularly swarthy character — snapping me out of my reverie. Ponty was a reference to the Bible’s Pontius Pilate, seen as thriftless, dithering, and stupid. It was a customary insult. In fact, I’d once had a conversation with Minh himself, who had argued that the reason for the insult was to associate us workers with an enemy of Christ, and thus portray us to the middle classes as immoral and, crucially, as deserving of our lot in life. I hadn’t understood him at the time, but upon even superficial thought it made perfect sense. Evo always said that when in the Spanish colonies, the workers were compared to Judas Iscariot as they “reflected” his indecision, unreliability, and greed.
“Oi, I thought I told you …” the overseer threatened.
I quickened my pace, thankful that the overseer had given me that second chance.
By now we had descended from the Glory and were walking in single file over the rugged terrain. It was foggy, but not unduly so. The change in pressure took some getting used to though — I felt squeezed down, suppressed.
The area was devoid of vegetation. The only noticeable attribute to the setting was a vague silhouette on the horizon. We seemed to be approaching it. As we neared, I could just about make out that the silhouette was comprised of little wooden shacks. I guessed that these would be our new homes.
A signpost by the shacks put paid to that idea. “Equipment Storage,” it read.
“Where are our homes?” I asked one of the overseers indignantly.
“Just over the ridge, Ponty,” came an equally indignant reply.
I thought that I would chance it: “But why not here?”
Luckily, this overseer seemed to be rather more kind-hearted than the typical one: “Can’t get the equipment wet, Ponty. This is the top of the embankment — the air here is thinner and less moist. You lot will be sleeping down below.”
“So you would rather we got wet?”
“You lot don’t rust.”
There was a pause, in which time the overseer realized that he had been too lenient on me. “Anyway, back in line, Ponty. And stop asking questions!”
I duly did so. Without the energy to seethe at this revelation, I trudged with the other workers down the embankment, where our new settlement could now be seen.
“It’s all misty,” I heard one of my fellow workers complain, before a sharp blow put an end to his dissent.
Once at the bottom, we were greeted by the great and the good of Ald Hux Colony I. The High Commissioner — a rather small, balding man with extensive ginger-colored facial hair — was there to greet us in person. Despite his small stature, he had a bellowing voice that indicated a no-nonsense approach to his colonialism.
“Right, folks,” he began, his face slightly obscured by the mist. He might even have called it a haar; his accent was that of the Nouveau-Scots. “First of all, I must say how delighted I am to have you all here.”
I’d heard a variation of those words upon arrival to every single colony I’d been to.
“I hear that you are some of the best workers in the whole of this British Empire.”
Some of the workers cheered. I didn’t though — I’d heard it before.
“But … you must all live up to that reputation. We only like workers who work. Any sign of slacking, any sign of slumber, and any sign of … socialism will be cut out immediately.”
Again, this was customary; only, this time, the word “socialism” had been said with slightly more malice than usual.
“If you are good, then we will provide you with good things. If you show signs of being faulty then we will have to consign you to the scrap heap. Remember, work sets you free.”
I shivered. This too was a customary phrase of the imperialists. I’d never thought anything of it until Minh had shown me an old book and read it out to me, coming across the words: “Arbeit macht frei.” Fluent in German, Minh had told me that the phrase meant “Work sets you free.” Of course, the colonialists refuted this, wanting to avoid any association with the Nazis — I’d seen them say flatly to many workers of German descent that their translations were simply incorrect.
I’d asked Minh why the colonialists had taken such a risk in utilizing such a phrase. “Firstly,” he had said, “because it reflects their ideology — creating differences that aren’t there. Secondly, I believe it is them testing their own power — to examine how pliable we workers are to them.”
“And are we pliable?”
Shortly after the speech, we were assigned to our new homes. It was eight to a hut irrespective of age, gender, or health. There was one good point though — we had hammocks to sleep in. This raised us above the damp, earthen floors.
Keir Owen seemed pleased enough with these additions. “Imagine ‘at,” he said in his New-Scouse accent. “‘ey’ve e’en thought tae provide us wi’ hammocks. Here wis I ‘hinkin” we would be lyin’ on this-here damp floor. Nice though, eh, tae provide us wi’ these hammocks?”
I grunted, already lying down in one of these hammocks. “We could have had the huts up the hill,” I moaned.
“Aye, but the machinery would rust if it were doon here instead,” Keir pointed out.
“We’ll get ill.”
“Only ‘cos we’re told that.”
“Tis true! You never see an ill worker.”
“That’s ‘cos you’re not allowed.”
“But I’ve ne’er been ill in my life.”
“Have you ever puked?”
“Well, then, you’ve been ill.”
“Aye but not seriously.”
“Did your brother not collapse and die? What’s that now, three years past?”
“Aye, but it wis his time.”
“Time for what?”
Despite the fact that my eyes were closed, I could feel Keir’s gaze upon me. “Time to die. Everybody dies.”
“Aye, but couldn’t he have lived longer, eh? If only he’d been provided with medicine — the Imperialists use them.”
Keir’s voice was now croaky. “I don’t ‘hink you should say such things.”
I suppressed my fury. Keir was a good guy. How had he been forced to live this lie?
I rubbed my eyes and then opened them.
A camera pointed down from above.
To be fair, it was partially concealed by the mist that had seeped into the cabin. But how could I have been so stupid?
I was watched very closely for the whole of the next week as we settled into our new jobs. Not a word was said to me on my dissent, but the continual overseer presence around me was conspicuous.
We were mining for bauxite, this particular ore now near exhaustion in many planets across the empire. Work, therefore, was intense. We were working in a shady, narrow mineshaft with dust that continuously affected our respiration
Today we were to create a controlled explosion down one of the mineshafts in order to loosen some of the rock. We were all quite excited with this as it broke the usual drudgery of picking at the rock.
The explosives were laid in place and, once everybody was out of the mineshaft, detonated with a thirty-second fuse.
The ground shook violently once the time was up. There was a faint glow at the entrance to the mineshaft as the fired roared up and licked what hadn’t yet been damaged.
We watched in wonder at what we had created. We knew that we would soon be back in that mineshaft, collecting the loose bauxite debris. We’d literally be picking up lumps of it; far more satisfying than the usual laborious mining which gleaned us barely any more of the mineral.
Therefore, we were all in quite a good mood as we entered the shaft some time later. Buoyed too by the spectacle of the explosion, the overseers forgot themselves and shared out some of their afternoon provisions.
Time wasn’t wasted on sealing up the remainder of the mineshaft. We were too eager to claim our prize.
Using our sacks, we set about collecting all the loose bauxite. Working on commission — the empire had done away with workers’ salaries — this was probably going to be the year’s best chance to make a little money and pay off the debts we had racked up from when we’d last used explosives.
We stuffed our sacks with bauxite. Sometimes we would feel faint tremors as other parts of the mineshafts, which had held up until then, gave up their struggles and collapsed. We were too busy to care though.
Once I’d filled my second sack and handed it over to the overseer at the entrance, I felt the biggest tremor yet. We all felt it.
I watched the section of mineshaft in front of me give way and the roof collapse. Earth and rubble intermingled as they cascaded down. I looked on in horror as I noticed Keir for the first time in the darkness, trying to rush towards us before the debris engulfed him.
He didn’t make it.
Barely thirty yards from us, a particularly large section of the roof dislodged itself and came tumbling down. Keir was crushed under its weight. I caught a quick glimpse of blood before yet more rocks buried the body.
A cloud of dust then came our way, blinding and choking us. We stooped to cough, and then lifted ourselves to breathe. Upon breathing in only dust, we stooped to cough once more.
The dust and debris settled, allowing us to look up. Still choking, we looked back at the mound of rocks, which constituted Keir’s grave. At its edge was his legacy — a sack full of bauxite.
Cautiously, we approached. Without saying a word, we stared down at a stream of blood oozing from under one of the rocks.
We heard muffled voices at the other side of the mound. We could not see the speakers but knew that it must be the workers who’d been collecting bauxite some way down the shaft. They were trapped but safe.
The stream had now become a pool.
The overseer broke the silence, sounding genuinely emotional: “I can’t believe it. He was a good worker.”
“A good man,” I said.
Our attentions turned to the sack of bauxite, blood now congealing round it.
“Well, at least the bauxite was saved,” the overseer mumbled. It was a throw-away comment — he did not mean disrespect — but for me it was too much. I launched myself at him. I was not angry with him but at the system which had created him.
He did not know quite how to react. He screamed for help and, just as I drew blood from his upper lip, a couple of overseers who’d been patrolling outside rushed to his aid. I was hauled off of him and beaten to a state which far exceeded the damage I had inflicted.
Once they stopped, I looked up. The overseer whom I had assaulted did not even have a trace of vengeance upon his face. Only shock. Somebody had given him a bowl of water to wash his wounds. I could see the water stinging him. I actually felt sorry for him — he was one of the more favorable overseers. I’d learned the other day that he had come to Ald Hux Colony I in order to spread his Christian message. He was a good man but one who was confined by the conventions society had imposed on him.
After all, he still called me Ponty.
There was no malice in the man’s face, but I could see that he was going to do nothing to prevent my imminent departure.
One of the other overseers was calling Base, requesting backup.
I stared into the overseer’s face imploringly. But he was going to do nothing. He was the true Pontius Pilate — he was the one washing his hands.
They came for me.
My head was covered with a hood, and I was marched away. There was no dissent; no protest.
We marched over the rugged terrain. Sometimes I could swear, though, that it was a boot I tripped over instead of a jutting rock.
After a time, we stopped.
I could sense that we were now inside.
A single word:
Some more marching.
Then a jab.
Darker and darker.
Things were getting darker.
Desperately, I clung onto a thought. Something Minh had told me:
“Imperialism is a paper tiger.”
I clung and clung and clung. But then it slipped away, claws having ripped up the parchment.
Alasdair is from the wilderness of Elgin, Scotland. Currently, he is studying Chemistry in Edinburgh, and is also an active member of the Labour Party. It’s therefore not surprising that much of what he writes revolves around science and politics! The Second British Empire is his first published work, although he has written a novel which he is currently trying to get published.