Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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High Tide

by J. S.Watts


Some are damned without knowing it (and some are likewise saved). Value your salvation, even if it comes from unreliable waters.

The Trawler's Bible

####

Far from the main trawler fleet the little craft circled aimlessly, riding the waves like the proverbial cork. Out here in the depths it was on its own in an expanse of oily black. The main fleet was no longer visible. The only proof of its falsely comforting presence was the crackle of conversations spilling out into the ship via its speaker system.

Alone in the black, Vert couldn't see the currents writhing and coiling round the ship, but he could sense them. Read properly and treated with respect, they would, in due course, take him and the crew back to the relative safety of the fleet. Misjudge or ignore them and you could find yourself adrift in a large expanse of nothingness. Now all he could do was wait for high tide.

Vert hadn't wanted to come out here; none of the crew had. It was too far from anywhere and well beyond fleet support capabilities. They were very much on their own.

The fleet had been having a hard time of it, however. It had been a bad trip out. Catches were meagre and the storage containers on the factory ships were still more than half empty. The usual fishing grounds were not delivering and unless crews were willing to return home empty handed and out of pocket -- and who with a family was prepared to do that? -- extreme measures were called for.

It had therefore been decided that the three smallest and quickest vessels, of which Vert's Safe Returns was one, would head out way beyond the usual fishing grounds to see if those far flung beds, artificially stocked aeons ago when the possibility of food shortages had first been predicted, were now ready to yield decent sized catches. The Safe Returns had been sent in search of the oldest and furthest of the spawning beds. Vert was especially unhappy with their particular destination, but what could you do?

It wasn't just that the beds were so very far away that the Safe Returns' fuel tanks would be sucking on nothing by the time they got home; nor was it the growing distance from the main fleet and the incrementally increasing risks that this presented. Vert had captained a ship for long enough to accept these things as hazards of the trade, although many of his less experienced crew were likely to disagree. No, Vert's main problem with the task was, surprisingly, a moral one, or at least moral in Vert's terms.

Vert was a hunter, not a philosopher. He normally had no qualms about what he did: kill or be killed, eat or be eaten; your life depended on where you were in the food chain and Vert always aimed to be near the top. His religion was self preservation and anything which threatened his survival or that of his family, whether short or long term, was sinful in his eyes. Collectively there were too many threats associated with this trip and Vert wasn't happy with the odds.

The leap at high tide would take them straight to the ancient fishing grounds, but should they even go there, that was the question? The beds had been stocked for a purpose. Over-fishing centuries ago had caused the extinction of many species and created the real possibility of food shortages. The Fishing Authority, under pressure from the government of the day, had imposed quotas and declared no go areas. Those areas previously fished dry and furthest from home were declared protected reserves and restocked. Despite increased pressure, the reserves had remained inviolate. With surprising farsightedness the Authority had argued that slim pickings in the short term would generate plenty for all later. The new food beds, if left untouched, would not just re-populate their immediate vicinity, but would eventually grow big enough to expand into the emptiness around them, restocking and replenishing the bio-diversity of whole galaxies.

And the beds had been left and allowed to flourish, but at great cost to Vert's people. Whole trawler fleets had been disbanded and decommissioned, population controls had been imposed on the home worlds and where they were not adhered to starvation had been allowed to run its course.

Vert's own family had lost many members in The Second Great Galactic Famine. Later generations had tried poaching, but the price for it was high. Without the protection offered by a large fleet most did not make it there and back across the expanse. Those who did live to see the reserves often found government robot gunships or antimatter black mines waiting for them.

Occasionally you heard stories of those who claimed to have fished in the reserves, but any fool could tell a story. Moreover the stories told were not encouraging. They told of little more than trophy kills; enough to feed a family, but not whole planets.

The food shortages had eased, but in recent years the size of catches had started to diminish again and attention had turned once more to the untapped reserves. Vert thought it was no coincidence that the ban on fishing in the no go areas had been lifted by the new government of the day less than a week before the fleet had set sail on their current voyage and many years before it should have been lifted.

It remained to be seen, however, just how long the right to hunt in these areas would remain in place. Governments came and went with alacrity these days. Vert didn't want to find himself up to his armpits in gutted catch when they changed their minds again. Penalties for illegal fishing were usually fatal and had been known to be retrospectively applied: the plea that it had been legal at the time you were doing it held little sway with the judges.

So here he was, anxiously waiting for high tide and the dubious honour of being the first captain to prematurely sully the purity of a ground bought at such high cost, or alternatively the first captain to be publically terminated for doing so. Neither prospect was attractive. Vert wasn't even convinced that he could net the size of catch hoped for. With the ban lifted early, who could say if he would find the teeming billions hoped for swarming through the galaxy, or fragile stock still clinging to the spawning beds. If the breeding colonies had not yet multiplied what was Vert supposed to do? Fish and be damned and risk future starvation or return with an empty hold and no money to pay the crew and feed his own family?

Decision time was fast approaching. In less than ten minutes it would be high tide and the Safe Returns would make the final leap to the old fishing grounds. The crew were primed to begin harvesting immediately upon arrival; the sooner they began, the sooner they could return to the protection of the main fleet.

Vert, however, was still struggling with the options facing him and his lack of faith in government initiatives. He could refuse to make the leap, but then he would face a court martial, and the outcome of those was never good, or his crew might lynch him, although at least he wouldn't have to face the court martial. Basically, whatever he did, he was damned. The only hope was a miracle and Vert didn't believe in those or he would have been praying rather than fretting.

There was a knock on his cabin door and Pico Green came straight through before Vert could even say, "Come in."

"High tide's almost with us, sir," she said. "The ship's ready to make the final leap as and when."

Vert swallowed hard. He was a skilled hunter, but a moral and a practical coward. He was trapped and wanted a way out, but he could see no hope for it.

"Make the leap on the arrival of high tide. I'll be on the observation deck if you need me." At least he could check out the food stocks himself and stare his fate in the face rather than let it sneak up on him unawares.

####

By the time Vert arrived at the observation deck his anxiety levels were above maximum. The Safe Returns had completed its leap and was floating in a starry sky approximately ten meta-fathoms above the small green/blue planet that was the main seed bed for this galaxy. It didn't take him long to establish that whilst the bed itself was teeming with food, there seemed to be little or no spread beyond the planet itself: a few robotic satellites in localised orbit, no more than that. That meant bad fishing, bad returns and a very bad feeling in Vert's premonition glands. He could feel himself breaking out in a cold sweat and he almost jumped out of his three skins when Pico Green's voice broke through the intercom at him.

"Sir, we have commenced harvesting protocols, but have just received urgent amended instructions from the Fishing Authority via Fleet command, sent as we jumped. Think you should see them, sir."

Vert winced, "Read'em out, then."

"Your authority to fish in the Outer Galaxy Reserves has been retrospectively amended and only now applies if the stocks have extended significantly beyond the original beds. Prior to commencement of harvesting you will take formal observations of population spread. If spread permits you may then commence harvesting. If spread is insufficient you will refrain from all fishing activities and authority to fish in the Outer Galaxy Grounds is hereby rescinded, with resultant ultimate penalties should you breach this embargo." Pico Green finished reading.

"There's more of the same, sir. Basically if the stock has not grown large enough all bets are off. The Authority is, however, willing to pay us set aside compensation if we cannot fish, but are prepared to risk staying out in the reserves beyond the next high tide to take full scientific observations of the stock and to do what we can to speed up population spread. If it's any help, sir, the crew won't like it, but they will be willing to carry out the observations. It's better than no payment at all."

Vert made a mental note to sacrifice to all the Gods upon return to the home world by way of a thank you. His decision had been lifted from him without warning and a solution provided all at one go. There was something to be said for keeping in with the Gods, even if salvation had come from an unexpected source and bound in unfriendly bureaucratic red tape.

"Fine, Pico. Stand the net teams down immediately before any damage is done. Get the scanners going. I think I already know the results of the scan, but let's keep it proper and formal.

####

The scanners confirmed Vert's opinion some hours later. There would be no fishing this season. Food stocks had expanded, but hadn't made it off planet beyond satellite activity and sporadic visits to the adjacent moon, though no colonization had even taken place there. It would be a good few seasons yet before the food stocks spread sufficiently into the galaxy to warrant a return visit. Still with a bit of discreet meteorological tweaking Vert thought he could turn the heat up on the breeding process. The stock, ignorant of its purpose, was expanding quite rapidly of its own volition and, with the planet starting to warm up nicely, in another generation or two localised food shortages would drive the creatures away from the presumed safety of the nursery bed. The fleet's next trip out, when it took place, would be a rewardingly fruitful and bloody one. The fishing should be really good. Vert had already lost his previous moral qualms and was looking forward to it.

THE END


© 2010 J. S.Watts

Bio: J.S.Watts lives and write in the flat lands of East Anglia in the UK. Her poetry, reviews and short stories appear in a variety of publications in Britain, Canada and the States including Acumen, Big Pulp, Abandoned Towers, Ascent Aspirations, Dark Horizons, The Dawntreader, Ethereal Tales, Midwest Literary Magazine, Murky Depths, Serendipity, Twisted Tongue, Visionary Tongue and The Ugly Tree. Her story "Jenny" won third prize in the 2009 Wells Literary Festival International Short Story Competition and was broadcast on BBC Radio in January 2010. Currently she is Poetry Reviews Editor for Open Wide Magazine.

E-mail: J. S.Watts

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