I watch a ship beside me vanish into the ochre folds of Saturn’s atmosphere. Another vessel rises from beneath me like a sea monster breaching the meniscus of a misty ocean. I’m forced upwards and out of the waiting zone, but I set my jaw and dive back into the fuliginous miasma, risking collision to find a better starting spot. It doesn’t help that my console flickers on and off as the hydrogen atmosphere slowly chews away the sensors on my outer hull. I should have sprung for another layer of the inert polymer coating, but that would’ve cost money I didn’t have. After four years of collecting diamond rain, I’ve barely met the interest payments after costs.
They called us ‘dream catchers’, once upon a time, because our ‘catch’ changed the fortunes of entire families on Earth. But that was back when a diamond was still considered precious, before big companies could find insurance to cover their excursions. It was a time at the frontier of a technology that often failed under the pressures of Saturn’s atmosphere, when the value of a haul was measured both in carats and in lives lost. Those were the gold rush days, the days when the wild west of space still existed and anyone with debt inheritors (of at least three generations) could get credit for a ship.
I remember the day my grandfather left for Saturn. Golden sunlight honeyed the rusty autumnal leaves of his small orchard, and the smell of smoke perfumed the crisp air. His brown eyes, curly black hair and copper skin were gilt in the sun’s light as he leaned toward me. I’m told I look just like him. He stroked my head and smiled with the easy grace of someone sure of the world. He had always been a practical man, believing only in what he could see and touch and know to be true, but after four years of poor harvests and dwindling finances, desperation gave credence to the baseless dream of ‘hope’.
“Your father and I will come back soon,” he said, tilting his head the way he did when he was trying to reassure me. “And, then, we’ll have a better life. You’re the eldest son, so you’re in charge until we get back.”
I was thirteen.
My grandfather died of a heart attack one month into his journey to Saturn. He never made it to the gas giant. My father died five years later, having never returned home. It took the creditors less than six days to notify us of my father’s death and demand I continue to pay his debt. They didn’t know how he died. One of them suggested suicide, while another said it was sabotage. I could believe either reason, given the desperate measures I’ve taken myself.
A fork of lightning slowly arches through the brown haze. The ghostly outline of nearby ships bloom into view before disappearing into the nimbus again. The sky’s full of them. Black soot begins to fall like snow. It’s thick and heavy, but Saturn’s pressure means it glides downwards at a snail’s pace. Even now, long before the carbon flakes are crushed into diamonds and are ripe for the picking, I can tell it’s going to be a massive yield. Lightning erupts all around us now. It’s a storm unlike any I’ve seen on Saturn before. I feel a small flutter in my gut as I realize that a tempest like this one might finally set me free of my grandfather’s yoke.
I wait for the bigger ships to start diving, the ones with better sensors, and I dive after them. I crawl between the sheets of graphite, bumping smaller vessels out of my way. I fight against the thick, soupy atmosphere that wants to crush me or hold me still in its morass. The metallic hydrogen ocean below glows bright white. Already, I can see large chunks of diamonds sitting on its surface. Unlike some of the newbies, I keep my distance from the ocean. Even with my inert polymer, I know the trees of electricity shooting off the metallic waves are enough to kill the electronics in my ship. I watch scores of shiny new vessels, naïve and eager to claim their fortune, fly too low, get struck, and plunge into the ocean’s viscous surface.
I open the cargo bay and deploy my net. I feel the push of pressure on my ears as my ship’s integrity wanes. I don’t have as much time as the larger ships to remain at these depths, but I have longer than some. My hull creaks in sonorous tones, and I catch sight of a smaller vessel in trouble. Its net crumples and folds in a way it shouldn’t, and I’m glad there’s no open comms as it begins its jolting death throes. I watch the net reluctantly release its catch. A constellation of diamonds drifts in a cluster near the twist of metal and wires that used to be a ship. It’s easy pickings, and everyone knows it. The vultures descend, risking everything for a dream, and I dive with them, just another perpetual dreamer hoping for escape.