The Trash Sea sat calm in the morning gloom. Only a gentle churn disturbed its vast surface, too weak to budge anything but the lightest and smallest of objects. Ahead, Kay watched as a wave of old plastic bottles slowly formed, the churn pushing it up through the surface like a spoonful of thick molasses. It crested quickly, the flimsy mass falling apart under its own weight and scattering bottles in every direction. Each of them held the surface for only a moment longer, quickly dragged back down into the depths, where they would remain until chance saw fit to bring them back to the surface once again.
Similar events played out all around them, the churn pulling a seemingly endless variety of things to the surface. Kay saw waves of rusty tin cans, discarded action figures, splintered wooden furniture and the smashed remains of computer monitors. Off to one side, her eyes were drawn to a wave of paint cans, split open to spreading bright colours onto the surface. These too were quickly swallowed up, pushed asides to make way for what was to emerge next.
Just another day on the Trash Sea. Just as it always had been, just like it probably always to be.
“You’re drifting,” Oscar said.
Looking away from the horizon, Kay glanced over to look at her co-pilot. How he knew anything about their bearing, she had no idea. The man hadn’t even looked up from his console, focused entirely on his task of monitoring the various screens and gauges that controlled the engine. Stooped over like he was, she couldn’t even see his eyes, just the mop of silver streaked red hair atop his head.
“You want to drive old man?” she challenged.
“No, I want you to quit gawking and drive properly.”
Kay gave a mocking scoff, mostly to cover for the fact that she’d just realized he was right. They were off course by a not insignificant margin. As discretely as she could, Kay shifted the controls to set them back on the right track. The Pacific, groaned in protest at the command, incensed at being expected to do actual work. Regardless, the four mechanical legs affixed to the hull got to work, beginning to shift them around inch by crawling inch.
It took nearly ten minutes to complete the course adjustment and fall back into a normal walking rhythm. After a few steps to ensure things were steady, Kay pushed the throttle back up to flank. Immediately the Pacific gave another protest, a violent shudder rattling through the deck. When it persisted for several steps, Oscar swore quietly under his breath.
“Back it off,” he said, rising from his seat. “Pressure’s dropping.”
“The oil again? I thought you fixed that?”
“I repaired it. Clearly its broken again.”
Kay made a strangled sound in the back of her throat. “Why is this ship so old?”
Oscar offered no answer, instead crossing the cramped space of the pilothouse to where his oilskin hung from a hook. Practiced motions had it settled on his shoulders inside of a minute, followed quickly by a respirator over his head.
“You need any help?”
“No, should be an easy enough fix. Just keep us steady, I’ll radio when I’m done.
Kay nodded, taking in a deep breath before Oscar slid the door open. Instantly, a wave of humid foul-smelling air flooded in, so thick that it felt like liquid oil sliding over her skin. Seeking to minimize Kay’s exposure to it, Oscar exited the pilothouse, sliding the door shut behind him with a sharp click. Kay kept the breath held for as long as she could, hoping to give the air purifier time to at least take the edge off. It still tasted like rotten eggs. Doing her best to ignore it, Kay shut down everything save the stabilization gyros and settled in to wait, turning her eyes to resume watching the waves.
No one knew for certain how deep the Trash Sea ran. The detritus of entire generations lay beneath the surface, layer upon layer of discarded things stacked atop one another. It had been the work of no one event or group but instead countless individuals adding to it little by little. What had once been a mere trash heap had grown and expanded until it had become the sprawling behemoth it was today. A vile, stinking blemish on the world that very few went near willingly, let alone entered. Kay had been sailing it for most of her life.
“Alright we’re good,” Oscar’s voice buzzed through the intercom. “Try it.”
“Copy, hold on,” Kay replied, easing the throttle back up to one quarter. The Pacific gave an annoyed groan but obediently fell back into step, legs resuming their forward motion. When no alarms sounded, Kay pushed the throttle up to three quarters, wishing to make up for lost time.
“Easy!” Oscar shouted through the intercom. “Wait for me to get back!”
“Don’t bother, we’re basically there,” Kay sent back. “Go get the crane spun up.”
“I think I can move us a couple hundred meters on my own. How bad at this do you think I am.”
A pause stretched on, long enough for Kay to glare at the speaker in annoyance.
“Didn’t say a thing, heading out.”
The connection cut, leaving Kay to focus on steering the ship. Their destination lay just ahead, a section of the Sea where the waves were growing to the size of small hills. A direct result of a stronger churn, able to pull up larger objects from much deeper down. Even as they approached, Kay saw the skeleton of a car burst into view, long since reduced to nothing but rusty framework. Unlike the bottles from before, the car was tough enough to fight the churn, struggling to stay afloat on the uneven surface. It put up an admirable effort but, inevitably, it was dragged down. The Sea did not let things escape so easily.
Kay kept a firm grip on the controls as she steered the Pacific forward into the area. Instantly she felt resistance as the legs stepped down onto the shifting, uneven surface. This was where things got dangerous. The lack of steady ground increased the risk of the legs slipping, potentially tipping it off balance and crashing down into the Sea. In such a state, the Pacific would beno less vulnerable to being dragged under than anything else out here. Any misstep could easily be the end of them.
The thought barely even crossed Kay’s mind as she worked. Practice and instinct guided her hand, driving by feel as much as sight. She wasn’t worried about their chances, having navigated far worse than this many times over. With only a few stumbles, Kay soon had them settled into a relatively stable patch where the gyros could keep them upright without supervision. It left them sat still in the middle of a field of waves, each pulling up a veritable cornucopia of things up from deep below. The perfect ground for dredging.
For all the literal garbage within the Sea, just as much of it sill had value. Metal, paper, plastics, electronics, rubber, treasures of all kinds sitting below the surface. Just waiting for an enterprising individual to dredge them up for sale to the highest bidder. Easy fortunes sitting around for the taking.
Or at least that was the theory. In Kay’s experience, it mostly entailed digging through piles of crap, looking for random bits worth the bother of hauling back to sell as bulk scrap.
Switching the ship over to standby, Kay stood and began donning her own oilskin. The garment was as old as the Pacific, wear and tear making it both look and feel like a burlap sack. Her respirator was little better, its mouthpiece infused with the smell of old sweat, seasoning every breath she took with the aroma. She pulled it over her head anyway, knowing it to be better than the oppressive musk that washed back over her as she stepped outside.
Even stabilized, the Pacific’s deck still rocked gently from the churn, forcing Kay to widen her stance for balance. She took her time crossing to midship, quickly catching sight of Oscar where he sat at the crane. Under his direction, the device began to rise out of the deck, unfolding like a metal wing. As Kay took her position next to the sorting bin, winches squealed to life, pulling on the arm and twisting it out over the side of the ship. From the end dangled the grabbing claw on a length of steel cable. When everything had settled into position, Oscar turned in his seat to look over at Kay.
“Fortune and fillet!” he shouted.
“Pennies and porridge!” Kay shouted back.
It was an utterly silly little ritual, one that her father had started years ago by accident. He’d insisted one day that they were going to find something so valuable that they’d be having fish for dinner that night. One meal of reheated breakfast later had provided the rest of the phrase, a reminder to never get ahead of themselves. Kay hated it but couldn’t bring herself to let it go.
At the press of a button, the claw dropped from the crane into the churn below. It was immediately caught and pulled down, swiftly disappearing beneath the surface with nothing but the cable to mark where it had gone under. Oscar allowed it to sink for several seconds before hitting the recall, cable going taunt as it hauled the claw back up. A shallow dive, testing to see if it was worth the time investment to dredge deeper.
The claw broke the surface, grasping a full load of trash between its pincers. To Kay’s dismay she could see large chunks of organic matter threaded throughout. A bad sign for two reasons. First, it meant the spot was likely no good, and second, it meant she had to go through that disgusting slop to make sure.
Somehow it was even worse than she was expected when Oscar dumped the load into the bin with a wet plop. Kay spent a moment just staring, watching as the semi-liquid compost slowly oozed towards the corners. The smell was bad enough to overpower her respirator, the acrid stanch burning the inside of her nose.
“So uh, want to switch?” Kay shouted up at Oscar.
“Oh no, I did it the last three days. It’s your turn to sort.”
Grumbling, Kay stepped up to the edge of her bin, bracing as she pushed her hands into the muck. It was just as disgusting as she’d expected, warm to the touch and adhering to her gloves despite their wax coating. Trying not to think about what exactly this stuff had once been, Kay sifted through the more solid bits, doing her best to assess without touching anything.
Most of it was crap, worth less than nothing, certainly not the time it had taken to haul it up. A few bits looked more promising, scraps of metal and plastic, but they were the dregs at best, nothing to imply anything more valuable waited below. She kept them regardless, tossing the scraps into the appropriate bins. Dregs or no, little bits could add up.
Judging the load sorted, Kay signaled Oscar to continue by flashing him a thumbs down. He nodded and began to maneuver the crane back over the edge, aiming for a different spot in the churn to continue the search. Kay spent the time using her own controls to tilt the sorting bin over on its side, dropping the worthless contents back into the Sea. Some of it stuck and she had to use a scrapper to push it the rest of the way. She had to fight her gag reflex as the last dredges dribbled away.
Just as she got the bin back level, the next load arrived for her perusal. Somehow this one was even worse than the first, the slop so thick that it barely moved from where it fell, encasing every solid object within truly vile cocoons. Kay wanted to scream but managed to dial it back to an extended sigh.
It was going to be a long day.
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