The Fishery

Cécile Cristofari

Illustration by Emma Howitt


The fishing boats crowded the jetty, nets overflowing with dead things from across the cosmos. The fishery opened at dawn, its great maw ready and ever-hungry. The cranes were ready to drop the day’s load on the conveyor belts, food already, regardless of its origins. Their world rarely fussed anymore, as long as it could eat.

Orna hadn’t bothered to be inconspicuous. Showing up unannounced was usually enough; incognito inspections were rarely received well, and she did not want to deal with more aggression than she had to. She was only doing her job, like everybody else here.

It had been more than a job, once. The thought of entire solar systems ripped apart, plundered – like theirs had been – for food that was more pleasure than necessity, had filled her with anguish. She had become an environmental inspector because she was passionate about making sure that protected areas would thrive again, and because she deeply believed in following the law. But there were scant supplies of anguish, belief or passion left now. They had been plucked, like everything else, emotions and sounds and light and dreams and life; harvested in massive proportions, fed into industrial fisheries and packaged for easy consumption in supermarkets. Genuine feelings now had to be sought off-world, fished from increasingly remote areas of the universe and as often as not poached from protected areas, and she had long ago decided that if she could not source them ethically, she would not source them at all.

At least she still had her job.

The overseer of the factory was arguing with a boat captain about something. She walked in on her own. The conveyor belts droned, a sound that was no longer really sound to her ears, and she passed by workers in drab grey, some of whom nodded to her, while others went about their business as if she wasn’t there. Nothing was out of the ordinary, which was a good sign. On days where there was anything exciting to process, she ended up either having to investigate where the catch had come from, or confiscating it. Someone had to keep watch before the fisheries bled the universe dry.

She raised herself on the tip of her toes behind a line of workers. Nothing out of the ordinary, indeed. The boats had been combing the same areas of space they were allowed to sail in, and brought in the usual fare: debris, fragments of asteroids that had been roaming the void for aeons, a few anaemic rays of light here and there, some lithium that smelled like it had been projected into space in the explosion of a star too long ago to even remember if it had been near an inhabited world. A bit of primordial soup stranded on a drifting fragment was the closest the catch of the day had come to actual life. It was tiny, and she hoped that the workers wouldn’t miss it, or deem it impossible to package and throw it away. She didn’t point it out, however. They could do their job and she could do hers.

The overseer stormed in at last, mumbling. When his eyes fell on her, he scowled.

‘This day keeps getting better,’ he said.

‘Good morning to you too,’ she replied.

Without asking for his permission, she began to walk with him. He threw up his hands.

‘Go right ahead,’ he said, with something that could have sounded like anger – probably synthetic, but supplements were getting popular these days. ‘Who knows, maybe we’re about to make a tiny bit of money? That would fuck your day right up, wouldn’t it?’

She shook her head.

‘You know I don’t blame you,’ she said. ‘But I have a job to do. Last time someone checked here, you were processing a whole summer, Ary. A whole summer! You have to realise why that’s wrong, don’t you? That’s an entire planet, dead of hunger so that people here could eat a single season. A few summer days would have been fine, but an entire –’

‘Spare me the lecture. I know.’

Orna suspected that he didn’t, not really. But at least he remembered how much they’d fined him, and that would have to suffice.

‘Had to lay ten more people off last month,’ he suddenly said.

She spread her hands.

‘I’m sorry to hear it. But you know they would have been without a job not so long after that anyway, don’t you? When the stocks run out, they run out.’

‘And I hear those new protected areas are doing their job so well. Just let life recover for some time and it will leak out in the rest of the universe before you know it, they said.’

He waved at the conveyor belts. See anything leaking here? his gesture seemed to say. Orna didn’t answer. She’d had this conversation with so many people, so many times.

Her inspection revealed nothing untoward. The factory made do with what it got, and as the overseer had pointed out, the stocks clearly weren’t recovering as well as had been announced, and there was no way out in sight, either for the workers or for their depleted world.

She wondered if this was the sort of realisation one ought to feel something about. She wondered if she would have, once, and if she should start thinking about taking synthetic supplements, anger, maybe, or at least dedication. She shrugged the thought off.

This was only a job, after all.


The fishing boats rounded the jetty, trawling their nets behind them like overgrown dead limbs. The fishery opened at dawn, or what still passed for dawn now that most of the light had been consumed. Cranes hauled the nets and poured their contents on conveyor belts, prized finds and by-catch alike. Their world could not afford to be choosy.

Jana put on her gloves and sorted the mess into vats. Bits of sunlight here, tainted after travelling unprotected through the galaxy. Meteors there. Today it was mostly asteroids, bits of tough rock that had never sailed close to a real planet; only sometimes, a glint showed through the dust, a fantasised meteor, or even the memory of a meteor, of the kind that still terrified worlds. These she carefully set aside. When she was young, many such pieces landed in the nets. They were packaged in individual boxes and sent to gourmet markets. Nowadays the boats had to fish far from uninhabited worlds, and the stones they brought were emotionless and dry on the tongue.

Jana used to fish, herself. When the demand for bits of alien worlds had soared, her little boat had been unable to compete and she’d had to sell it. Now she lived in a flat on the coast. There was no sunlight and the walls were concrete, so empty it hardly looked real, although through the back window, you could glimpse the memory of the place where the sea used to be.

She pried out a tiny beam of red light from under a tangle of cosmic radiations. This was a good catch. You could almost smell summer on it. When you looked closely, you could make out the reflection of clouds, and a distinctive sense of reverence. This came from a world with no weather control, but with creatures advanced enough to have deified their sun. A chef in one of the gourmet restaurants of the port would turn it into a meal to remember, one that she would never be able to afford.

‘Oi, send that vat over here!’ Ary, her overseer, shouted. She pushed the vat of meteor dust towards the sorting line.

The beam was very small. Back when she was a fisherwoman, she would have had to release it into space. In large fisheries, you didn’t fuss over such details. It would be far too expensive to release all the by-catch, and by the time they did, it would have withered away already. Selling it to chefs skilled enough to shave it into thin slices and make it look like part of a big, healthy chunk from a world of abundance was far more profitable. Jana despised those chefs. They decorated their restaurants with real preserved storm clouds and boasted that they served only the most natural, pristine bits of the universe, but they worked in dry concrete towers like everybody else, charging fifty times the price Jana earned to sort through the belly of the fishing boats. And they served illegal catch at that.

Jana shot a glance at Ary. He was rummaging elbow-deep in the vat of meteors, swearing at the poor quality of the stuff and ranting about fishermen and government alike. She wrapped the beam in a bit of wet cloth that would keep it alive for a while, and tucked it into the front of her overalls.

As usual, it was a long, unrewarding day. Jana clocked out of the factory not a minute late. Outside, people milled through the grey mist, projecting two-dimensional holograms around them and laughing and pointing at the crude colours. She stopped at the supermarket and bought a bottle of rust soup, with artificial sleep flavouring.

Back in her flat, as the soup was reinvigorated in the microwave, she unfolded the cloth. The beam of sunlight still shone, but weakly. That didn’t worry her. Light was sturdier than people gave it credit for, although few still knew how to take care of it. She brought it to her living-room and laid it carefully between a tiny scrap of moonstone and a piece of precious driftwood, close to the window with the memory of the sea.

In her neighbourhood she was known as something of a miracle worker. She sat in her armchair and allowed herself a moment to relax. On the walls around her, her own private world thrived in the indoor garden: blots of natural colour, pieces of stone, feathers and metal, a couple of sunrays from various stars, a little water, even a real flower, yellow with bitter-tasting leaves. The key, she liked to explain when friends admired her work, was to stay away from artificial fertilisers, and to know how to pair her finds so that they worked together instead of competing with each other. If you left a bit of sunlight next to a shiny stone, for instance, they would grow a reflection between them after a while, and you wouldn’t have to lift a finger. No, not even trim off excess light. It was all a matter of trust, refraining from eating everything at once, and letting the universe do what it did best: balance things out.

It had been a long day. She deserved a little pick-me-up while the microwave worked. Carefully, parsimoniously, she helped herself to a tiny serving of the choicest food from her living-room: a little organic, home-grown emotion, peace and quiet with a hint of spring.


The fishing boats arrived at last, trawling a rotting bounty of worlds in nets behind them. The fishery opened at dawn; no one could afford to waste time. Cranes lifted the nets with rusty efficiency, pouring the stock of the day on conveyor belts. Their world was forever hungry.

Ary walked around the factory, shouting directions and sorting through the vats along with the workers. This was not a good day. The fishing boats had roamed the least alive corners of the universe and brought nothing but dust, radiations, and cold. Impure cold, at that. A nice absolute zero might have fetched a good price in an exotic food store, but those limp pulsating particles would barely interest supermarket customers.

‘What happened?’ he shouted over the noise of the cranes. ‘Solar wind pushed you out? Couldn’t you go anywhere near uninhabited worlds?’

‘Surprise inspection,’ the fisherman shouted back. ‘We’re not supposed to go closer than a light-year to life-bearing planets. I got fined last time I went past the legal limit. I can’t afford that again.’

Ary frowned. Some captains were less circumspect, and most inspectors took bribes. The truth was, their world needed food. What good would it do to make sure the next generations could eat if the present one starved? All the factory workers, every single hand on the fishing boats, everyone depended on catching precious bits from faraway worlds, now there was so little left on their own.

The last inspector to have been assigned to the factory did not take bribes, sadly. Ary had learned his lesson. That hadn’t made the situation all right, however.

In the dim artificial light, brighter than the half-eaten light of their sun, he went back to work, sorting through vats of anonymous cosmic dust for little bits of rocks that might actually have terrified a world, or burst into flame in a remote atmosphere and made children squeal. The day’s offering was dismal. Another few weeks like that and the management would call him in to ask for his opinion on who to lay off. Again.

The new girl sorting bits of cold by grade would be first to go, he decided. She spoke better but worked slower than anyone else, and she wasn’t even here on a permanent contract. If she thought that this was just a summer job, a holiday among the working class, then she could always ask her parents for money. Better get rid of someone who wouldn’t be here for long anyway than face the heart-breaking task of telling one of the regular workers that they were no longer needed.

‘You, over there!’ What was her name again? Lara? Lira? Mira. ‘Mira! Stick that thermometer at the core or you won’t get the right temperature!’

‘All right, Ary!’ she replied with a smile. He felt a pang of guilt. Mira was nice enough, she had called everyone by name on her second day on the factory
floor and she was always willing to lend a hand.

Who was he to assume she didn’t need the money? Rotten times, when you had to rate the men and women working with you by expendability.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Mira tuck something into her jacket and fumble with the thermometer.

He strode towards her. Pinching from the line was not tolerated. He might look the other way when old-timers did it – they’d earned it, after all, and he was not the kind of man who yelled at old ladies for going home with a measly bit of sunlight – but a new girl who slowed the whole line down when she fumbled with her tools? Not a chance. He grabbed Mira’s arm. She gasped and straightened, but not before he could see the camera disappearing inside her pocket.

Ary’s arm fell. This was worse than stealing. This was betrayal, pure and simple. He marched Mira towards a quiet corner.

‘You’re filming us,’ he said through clenched teeth, still careful that no one saw them although it would have served her right. ‘What are you trying to do? Prove that we process illegal by-catch? All right, we do. Everybody knows. It’s the only way we can keep this factory running.’

Mira opened her mouth. Ary didn’t let her speak.

‘What are you trying to achieve? So our boats are destroying other worlds bit by bit, we know that too! Are you going to tell me you don’t eat any of it? What do you do, survive on home-grown hope alone? Don’t expect me to believe that!’

‘Actually, I do,’ Mira said. ‘I’m not a hypocrite. These worlds you’re destroying…’

‘We’re feeding off them! If we stop, what good will it do? You won’t even get to see them!’

‘Relax, Ary.’

She looked right and left.

‘No one is going to close your factory. As you said, everybody knows. We just want to shift mentalities. We don’t have to keep feeding off other worlds. We can make our own…’

‘Fine. I’ve heard that rubbish a thousand times. Give me the camera.’

‘Can’t we work that out?’

Before he told her off, she produced something from her pocket. It was lacy and light, earth-brown, and it smelled crisp and delicate. Ary gasped.

‘Is that… a real leaf?’

Mira nodded. Ary bent forward. There were only brown veins left, but the scent of the memory behind it was unmistakable: winter, falling down in the snow, and the simple delight of a child.

‘My parents took me to that world when I was little,’ Mira said. ‘There were still plenty of these over there. And snow, too. It’s yours, if you want it.’

A real leaf, oozing with memories.

‘It must be worth at least…’

‘It’s not a bribe, okay? It’s for you. If you look at it often, it won’t wither. It may be a bit silent for a while, until it adjusts to you. Then it will start producing again.’


‘Joy. Just a sip, every two weeks or so. If you nurture it, it will last forever.’

Ary took the leaf in his hand. The cold pricked his fingers. It had been so long since there had been any winter left on this world. He blinked.

‘We’ve never worked together,’ he said. ‘I don’t know who you are and you’ve never seen me. Now be more careful with that camera.’

Mira smiled and ran back to work. Ary went back to his corner of the factory, waiting to go home and revel in a child’s memory of winter.


The fishing boats advanced on the jetty, trawling their nets behind them after relentlessly combing the universe. In the artificial dawn, the fishery looked unbelievably gloomy. The nets burst open over conveyor belts as if they were being gutted in turn. The whole world survived on evisceration.

Mira watched as the workers lined up to start their shifts. Journalists were not allowed into the fishery, but new workers were welcome. Officially, her job consisted in sorting through the catch of the day. Her camera was hidden in her jacket, ready for her other assignment.

It had been her idea. Several of her journalist friends were waiting for her recordings. She had no idea how much of a scandal it would cause. Most people knew how the fishery plundered worlds across the universe, robbing them of substance, purpose and emotion so that their world could feed. However, having that fact rubbed in their faces was another matter. She had shown videos of fishing lines wrenching an entire spring from a world, leaving it bare and shivering. She had seen people avert their eyes and wipe tears then. There was hope yet.

And that was precisely what she needed before going in. She ran her fingers over her chest until she found a little strand of hope, pulled gently and pried it free, careful not to disturb the rest of the growth. She nibbled at it and let it melt on her tongue. The flavour was warm, full-bodied, spicy. Hope was a rare delicacy, incredibly tricky to grow and difficult to maintain, and locally-sourced varieties were almost impossible to find these days. She hid the root under her clothes, so as not to appear suspicious.

Inside the factory, the spectacle was heart-breaking. Pieces of dismembered worlds were poured on belts and shelves, sorted into vats, manhandled, thrown around, treated without care or respect. So much was wasted in this way. You couldn’t hack trust apart on a conveyor belt and expect it to retain its strength, or store light in boxes and be surprised when it turned into darkness. No wonder their world had to rely on artificial flavourings so much. Worst of all, what was being sent to the conditioning wing often consisted of illegal catches: warmth plucked in excess from too-young suns, emerging languages, newly-deified comets. Who would not be moved by such absurdity?

At midday, she joined the other workers for lunch. Jana passed around a box of home-made nibbles: tiny reflections in drops of freshwater that tasted like morning. For a moment there was no sound to be heard but delighted groans. Grinning, Jana explained how she grew reflections in her living-room, using real sunlight and home-made dew. Mira liked Jana. She was a quiet old lady who made no fuss about her skills and often looked a little sad, but she reminded Mira of something her grandmother used to say: when some people became very good at growing things, they started developing seeds inside them, and once scattered around, those seeds could take root in anyone careful enough to nurture them. Seeds of joy, of pride, of hope. Too bad no one knew how to recognize them anymore.

It was a stressful day, but Mira managed to go through without incident, although her overseer came close to throwing her out. After he left her alone, she discovered a little sprout at the back of her mind. Thrill, or fear, she didn’t have time to figure it out. She rearranged her hair to hide it. Fear was a popular spice, but most of it came from artificial flavourings now. She would have to be careful before tasting the real thing. It was rumoured to be extremely addictive.

When she turned on her digital device at home, the first thing it did was project an automated picture of a crude wide-eyed animal on the wall. ‘PUPPY!’ the electronic voice squealed. She started and turned around, before realising that there was no one in the room with her. Under her hair, the little sprout of fear stirred.

She loaded her recordings online. As the process bar unfolded, she ran her finger through her hair and thought about what was coming next. She was going to lose her job. There would be other ways to earn a living, but her online file would bear the dreaded ‘untrustworthy’ stamp. She could be unemployed for some time. She would have to ask her friends for money. That would be easier to do if the recordings reached a wide audience through the press; otherwise she would go back to becoming what she had been most of her life – a burden, full of wild dreams but not focused enough to let them grow and bear fruit before she consumed them.

Then again, the recordings might go viral. They might even start a public debate about how the fishing boats abused the galaxy, rendering other worlds as grey and sterile as their own had become. Then the other side would grow vocal. She would be called a hypocrite, a bourgeois idealist with no regard for her former co-workers at the fishery, a hysteric with no sense of reality. Her parents would pretend to support her, acting like fatalists while eating through slices of imported rainbows and sandy beaches, and her aunt would say, ‘Better not think too much about where it comes from’, while digging through a platter of northern lights. This could become a very dark time for her.

Mira closed her eyes and smiled, as her racing heart sent nutrients in spades towards the scion of fear taking root in her brain. Over her heart, a blossom emerged on her sapling of hope.


The fishing boats reached the jetty, nets bulging, competing for space on the docks. Most were already in place when the dawn bell rang and the fishery opened. Cranes unfolded, sailors secured nets overflowing with cosmic dust to their hooks, over the conveyor belts. Their world was ready to swallow it all.

Julius greeted the grumpy overseer from his deck, bracing himself for another string of recriminations. Not enough of this, too much of that, the fishery was going bankrupt and everyone would starve including the fishermen. The truth was, he wouldn’t have sold his stock to the fishery if he could have helped it. Their rates were shamefully low, and they all but pressured him into fishing in illegal areas. One of these days he would have to think about direct-to-consumer sales. One of these days.

When the speaker announced how much he was getting today for the contents of his net, he jumped on the dock. There was barely enough to pay his crew, but when he found the manager, the man only shrugged.

‘People don’t want asteroid dust, you know that. I’m sorry, old man.’

‘Of course you are. What do you want me to do? We can’t get close to life-bearing worlds. Dust is all we get out there. I can’t afford those fancy fishing lines. I’m doing what I can.’

The manager had already started talking to someone else. Julius went back to his ship. There was nothing he could do except rant a bit and go back to work.

His father had been a fisherman, and his grandfather too. Back then, life had been so much less complicated. In his grandfather’s time, there had still been a sea in their world. You could find everything you needed there: brine, wind, seasons, smells aplenty, sounds of crashing waves, even fish, sea birds and whales. Food for an entire world, back when the world was smaller and less greedy. Dip your net into the sea and it would come up brimming with life, his grandfather said. Of course, that must have been an illusion, even then. His grandfather was still alive when the fish disappeared for good. When his father was still working, it was the turn of the winds and seasons, and now even sunlight was scarce. All of those things were still in plenty in other worlds, but now lawmakers had to meddle in. Now there were endless talks of regulations, sustainability, conservation areas. Not that Julius had anything against that. But he still had to pay for his boat.

‘Finish cleaning the nets and we’re going back,’ he announced to his crew.

As it turned out, there was nothing much to clean. They had hardly managed to catch any filth, not even a little damage. Not that damage sold for much these days. Halfway through the afternoon, they fired up the motor again. It would have to be better this time.

The sailors talked among themselves. Some items were in high demand at the moment. Music could fetch very high prices. One of the chefs who worked in the hidden dens of the ports, the ones only initiates had access to, was rumoured to have found the perfect way of turning music into heavenly, melt-on-the tongue sashimi, and now raw music was all the rage in town. Julius rolled his eyes. He could almost hear his grandfather talking about the golden days when you only had to cut the motor and you would have heard music echo all over the galaxy, ripe for the picking. These days virtuoso music was incredibly hard to find. Unless, of course, one sailed a bit too close to conservation areas, where strange tunes blossomed from planets yet unconsumed.

This wasn’t a good idea, but one more week like this and the boat was as good as bankrupt. Besides, they had been inspected the day before. It was unlikely the authorities would have their sights on them two days in a row. Just this once, and they would be very careful. They wouldn’t use the tighter net, only the one loose one that would let clumsy children’s tunes slip away. After that they would have time to put up with a little paperwork. Direct-to-consumer might become more than a dream.

He set the course under the questioning looks of the sailors.

‘There will be no inspection today. I’ll pay out of my own pocket if there is one. Onward!’

Many hours later, they arrived in view of a yellow sun with tiny planets dancing around it. A quick inspection revealed that only two of them bore life, one cold and hidden under ice, the other spread between oceans and stretches of rocky ground. Julius ordered the sailors to cut the motor. They would make a quiet approach.

The familiar rush of exhilaration greeted them as they caught sight of the world they had found. Worlds with colours were becoming rarer and rarer. They caught a little sunlight on the way, and a little starlight, too, reflected in the minds of poets and local sailors. How long had it been since anyone had fished near this world? It seemed that they could cast their net anywhere and bring a bounty of life, beauty, colours and sounds to the ship. It was pristine. It was wonderful.

‘Only music,’ Julius said, breaking the awed silence of the sailors.

They were close enough to see the details of the surface, when a long, loud sound reached their ears.

It could have been a horn, or a deep trumpet. Slowly it rose, and called, and crashed down again. Julius had never heard anything like it. And strangest of all, when most intelligent life seemed to live on the rocky part of that world, the song came from out at sea.

‘Here, captain!’ a sailor called, getting the net ready. The song rose again. Julius raised a hand to stop the sailor, and listened.

Down in the sea, a massive creature rose. It broke the crest of the waves and sank again, its black tail whipping the water once. Another creature answered in low bellowing tones. On and on they sang, and played, breaching through the water and breathing out plumes of mist. Then they disappeared under the sea.

It was a long while before Julius remembered what they had come here to do. His hand was on the crank, poised to release the net.

He let it go.

‘Let’s go home,’ he said. None of the sailors objected. Their eyes were still trained on that foreign ocean, in a world so bountiful even the sea had its song. ∎

After working in Québec for a couple of years, Cécile Cristofari settled in her native South France, where she teaches English literature and writes stories when her son and daughter are asleep. Her stories have been featured in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Reckoning and elsewhere. She can be found on her website: Stay where people sing. Bad people don’t usually sing.

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