Canals suggest one of three things: Panama (which I wanted to avoid for being a bit too on the nose), Venice, and Mars of the old science fiction epics (e.g., Barsoom, Out of the Silent Planet). I chose to start with the latter.
Two Akrimai children peeped out at the strange robot. After two years of immobility, it had started making noises again. They knew that it was forbidden to be near the robot, and a death sentence to be seen by it. But they couldn't help their natural curiosity.
A team of delvers broke through the final door into the compound of the Ancients. Inside was a control room, but far more complex than they had ever seen before. Set into a great pedestal in the middle of the room was one single lever, colored a vibrant blue. Beneath it was a plaque, reading in plain language, "And the last shall be made first."
The great colony ship of the Astronomic Alliance Armada settled in a great cloud of dust on the surface of the dead planet. Long, dusty canals cut across the surface, connecting the great cities of an extinct population. The probes had returned information that the air was breathable, the soil was ridiculously rich in minerals, and there was no life more advanced that a common cockroach. The mining opportunities were endless.
And thus did Man come to the planet that would be known as Panama.
The Akrimai are, to be frank, a rather ordinary alien race, as such things go. They are small, generally a bit over a meter in height, and not particularly strong. With features that put one in mind of a gibbon, a body covered in light fur, and an apparent need to be constantly moving, the sobriquet "monkey man" was only natural. Their history was long, but also rather lacking in unique features. Two elements do stand out, though.
Like a few of the other races Man had encountered, the Akrimai had been visited a few centuries before by the enigmatic Ancients. These were alien beings of vast technological power, an apparent telepathic hivemind, and unfathomable agendas. These Ancients seemed to almost be retreating in front of the expanding Astronomic Alliance, but decades or even centuries before they arrive. The Ancients had bestowed upon the Akrimai technology, knowledge, and a spiritual system that replaced their ancient religions almost overnight.
The other element began after the Ancients departed the planet. The water disappeared. Not all at once, but gradually. Each year brought less rain. The oceans steadily dropped. The Akrimai desperately constructed canals and aqueducts to attempt to concentrate the remaining water in areas that would support agriculture. In the year that Man first sent probes to gather information about the planet, the Akrimai had retreated to a single city.
When the probes landed, they did so on the far side of the planet. The elders of the city recognized that these probes would be followed by ships. Ships that could be used to rescue their population from this doomed world. But no civilization would choose to open trade with such a poor people, nor would a civilization choose to enter into conflict over such a poor prize. Thus was the Plan made: The Akrimai would remain hidden from the probes. When the ships came, the Akrimai would reveal themselves. They would then take the ships from the aliens and flee this world.
Unfortunately, Man had made his own Plan. A world rich in minerals but little to no life was perfect for strip mining. The colony ship was full of delvers, who would spread out across the planet like locusts. They would extract all the value they could, with no thought to the long-term effects. Then, a hundred years hence, they would all leave again. This Plan, though, is only authorized on planets with no intelligent life. If word reached the Alliance that the Akrimai were on the planet, the Plan would be dashed, and the Armada would lose a great deal of money.
A rag-tag group of these Alliance delvers discovered an Ancient stronghold deep in the mountains. And in doing so, discovered that the Ancients had a Plan of their own. That plan involved siphoning all the water in the world into one great holding tank. And putting a single blue lever to release the water back into the world. Pulling that lever will restore life to Panama. It will destroy any chance of being able to mine the planet. It will also drown the last remaining city of the Akrimai. But why did the Ancients do this? And what does the cryptic plaque mean?
Naturally, these plans must be kept secret in order to succeed. But what happens when a small party of lovable misfits stumbles on one or more of them? Will they open negotiations, and have the Akrimai sell their planet in return for a ride off-world? Will they be brutally silenced by one side or the other? Or will they be unable to resist the