This is a story I wrote a while ago, but I’m not sure entirely when. I actually thought I had posted it but that does not appear to be the case. The original concept was banged out one evening in December of ’10. The best date I have for this version is May 13, 2011. I have notes for extending this to a full short story, but don’t imagine that that will ever happen 😉
Julian and Anders pulled the fourth and final net in halfheartedly, knowing that there was little point remaining in the exercise. They had been trawling this particular gas cloud all day with identical results. This time was no different, the net was empty. Julian tapped the helm and piloted the skiff to the next spot in their pattern and they cast their nets again and waited.
“Hey, Jules, I gotta ask you something,” Anders started to say as they finished deploying their array of nets. “Err. Ac’shully… nevermind.” And with that, he scurried belowdecks to busy himself for the few minutes it would take for the nets to do their work.
The old man looked at his partner’s back as he fled, and said nothing. Anders’ mother had been a good friend of Julian’s, but he wasn’t sure any more. The sickness had taken her wits, and it was only a question of time. Weeks probably. Julian would continue to support her as long as she lasted. They had managed this long, he could hold out and see this thing through. He had to, and not only for the boy. He owed it to her – no matter how little of “her” there was left inside that wasted shell. He could manage. He had to.
She had brought her son, Anders, to be apprenticed to Julian eight years ago. Eight years. The boy had grown since then. He had completed his apprenticeship more than a year ago. Anders could navigate these clouds blindfolded. He could tell pike from eels by the different ways they pulled on a net, and he would inherit everything Julian had.
The timer chimed and Anders hurried back above to help Julian with the nets. They worked in silence. Only two more stops charted tonight, and neither had much hope that either stop would be better than the eighty that went before.
Despite having completed his training period with distinction and having proven himself time and again, Anders had not yet taken his tests for certification. His mother had taken sick before arrangements could be made, and the boy had not been the same since.
The options for medical care were limited in the outer rings and local doctors had been unable to do anything to cure the sickness. They could only slow its advancement and offer their condolences. This sort of disease was becoming more and more common. Perfectly healthy folk would wake one morning and find themselves rotting away from the inside out. It was not pleasant. Thankfully, the mind was one of the first things to go, so the afflicted did not appear to suffer for long. Even with treatment, they rarely lasted more than a month. Anders’ mother had survived for six.
She seemed remarkably resistant to the sickness, and the doctors were particularly interested in her case as a potential lead in their desperate search for a cure. After the first month, they had taken her planetside for observation. Anders was not allowed visitation during this period, and even if he was, he couldn’t afford to take the time away from work.
Treatment was expensive, and the only way they could afford it was by agreeing to give her body for continued research after the disease had finally run to its inevitable conclusion. They were lucky to have even be considered for treatment at all. Resources were remarkably thin by this point.
After the third month, the doctors stopped making progress with her case and they shipped her home to Anders. They still wanted her body, but had apparently lost interest in her at present. A local doctor would check in at the first of every week to take some readings and swap out her medication canisters.
Julian and Anders finished pulling in the empty nets and flew to their second-to-last stop of the night, where they cast their nets and waited.
After the fifth month, the doctor stopped visiting. Anders had to make a weekly pilgrimage to the hospital to collect his mother’s meds. He read somewhere that a paper had been published showing that outer ring natives were as much as nine times more likely to survive the sickness into their third month than were planetsiders. The difference was attributed to a combination of atmospheric differences and diet.
The inhabitants of the outer rings ate mostly fish from the numerous gas clouds just beyond their asteroidal orbits. The fish had never been very popular planetside or on the inner rings, but that was before people thought that the fish might somehow ward off the sickness…
It was two days after the paper was published before the first inner ring ships arrived and began ruining everything. They vacuum fished clouds whole in retrofitted mining ships, leaving great blue and green streaks of lifeless exhaust in their wakes. The locals were quickly reduced to subsistence levels of production – with only the clouds nearest their asteroids being left relatively untouched.
The whole disaster lasted for a week. By then, the mining companies of the inner rings had destroyed every known gas cloud that their large ships could navigate – the smaller clouds nearer the rings themselves were deemed insufficiently profitable to warrant the risk of piloting a vacuum ship so close to the rocks. At least, not the models of vacuum ship they had on hand – one of the larger deep space ships could chew a 100m silicate body into powder without realizing it and could probably process the rock Julian and Anders lived on in an afternoon.
As the vacuum ships left, the locals were still waiting for a response to their petition to the consul’s office.
The clock chimed. Julian and Anders mechanically retrieved their nets. The first two were empty, but the third net contained a number of haddock. It was not enough to sell, but it could keep them fed for another week.
Julian began to sing to himself as he tossed his fish into the icebox. After a while, he noticed that Anders had left his half of the catch unattended. Confused, he looked for the boy and found him staring at the contents of the fourth net.
It wasn’t often that they caught artifacts. This was Julian’s third.