Four hours later, Kay was running out of reasons not to scream anyway. Every single load they’d dredged up had contained some form of organic matter, from mold to compost to things Kay would rather not dwell on. The worst of them had been little more than thick masses of putrid slime. She’d still had to go through them for anything worth salvaging, digging her fingers into the soupy mess while trying not to think about how some of it appeared to be moving. Forget a long day, the morning was proving hard enough.
Finishing with the latest offering, Kay hit the switch to dump it back into the Sea. It made sickly slurping sounds as it fell, leaving trails where it clung to the inside of the bin. It was the last straw for Kay, and she began to violently gag, fighting to keep her breakfast down. The last thing she needed was to throw up inside her respirator.
Staggering away from the bin, Kay frantically gestured towards Oscar with a slicing motion across her throat, signaling her need to stop. He nodded, swiftly shutting the crane down and anchoring the claw in place before climbing down to where she stood doubled over.
“You alright?” he asked.
“Need a break, or I’m gonna puke,” she answered, suppressing another flare of nausea.
Oscar gave her a pat on the shoulder, staining his clean glove on the layers of filth that clung to Kay’s oilskin.
“Right, well, it’s lunch anyway. You up for eating or…”
Swallowing a mouthful of bile, Kay gave a shaky nod.
“Just give me a minute.”
“Well don’t take too long, else I’ll eat it all myself.”
Kay nodded again, quickly regretting the motion as she fought back another heave. Smiling in amusement, Oscar gave her another pat on the shoulder before leaving her to suffer in peace. She swayed on her feet for several minutes, forehead pressed against the railing while she waited for the world to stop spinning. The gentle rocking of the deck didn’t help, the churn picking this precise moment to spike in intensity, but Kay was an old hat at this. Eyes shut. Slow, steady breaths. Try not to think about her lot in life. Worked like a charm. When she could finally move without risking the contents of her stomach, Kay rose from the railing and followed Oscar down below decks.
Descending a set of stairs, she entered a hallway so cramped that even her slight frame barely fit. Her shoulders cleared either wall by only inches, becoming even narrower in places where exposed pipes bulged out. Thinking skinny thoughts, Kay moved forward, heading for the cabin door sitting at the far end of the hall. Before reaching it, she paused at a second door to her left, this one labeled with the word ‘HOLD’ in bright yellow letters. Making the snap decision, she unlatched it and stepped through for a look at their haul.
The chamber beyond was downright cavernous, so large that her footsteps echoed off the walls as she crossed the floor. She could stretch out her arms in here, swing if such took her fancy, and never even come close to touching a wall. Over half the space below decks was given over to this single hold, a necessity in the dredging business. They needed somewhere to put everything they dredged up.
Presently it all felt a bit wasted. Barely a quarter of the space was occupied, mostly by a variety of farm equipment they’d collected piecemeal throughout the morning. Poor quality as far as salvage went, everything so badly rusted and warped to the point of barely being worth hauling back. They’d likely end up selling all of it for scrap.
Moving past the larger cargo, Kay looked over the line of industrial storage bins sitting against the wall. A series of chutes snaked out of their tops, connecting them to the sorting area up on deck. This was where all the little bits and pieces she’d been digging out all morning had ended up.
Out of curiosity, Kay popped a bin open to discover a pile of old plastic within, an assortment of bottles, CD’s and various other bits no longer recognizable as whatever the had been. It would be generous to call the bin half full.
Shifting to the next bin, thin one for metals, she found it barely contained enough to cover the floor. Electronics had only scraps, some she suspected were there from yesterday. Rubber and glass were both empty.
Insult to injury, everything stank nearly as bad as when they had pulled it out of the Sea. Bits of compost still clung to almost everything they’d kept, left to fester in a poorly ventilated hold. They’d have to hose everything down once they got back to port.
Closing the bin with more force than strictly necessary, Kay stepped back into the hall and approached the cabin door. She knocked three times before waiting, giving Oscar a chance to hold his breath before she pulled the door open. A gust rushed out as the seal broke, Kay moving quickly to shut the door behind her before too much of foul air could slip in.
As the only passenger cabin the Pacific had, the room beyond had to pull several duties at once. In one corner, a hotplate and small water basin served as makeshift galley. In another, two lockers bolted to the wall served as storage. A chemical toilet and shower curtain were the closest things to privacy they got while aboard. Next to the solitary window, a table served as meeting room, office and communal dining area. The sole luxury item present was an old couch, long ago salvaged from the Sea and press-ganged into service after being disinfected to within an inch of its life. Kay still didn’t entirely trust it was completely sanitary but her aching shins would take whatever comfort they could get at this point.
“Oilskin,” Oscar said as he stirred a pot on the hotplate.
“Yes dad.” Kay shot back, already pulling off the offending garment. She hung it and her respirator on a hook before crossing to the couch and falling into its heavenly embrace. Or at least the mildly more comfortable embrace of under-stuffed cushions and sagging springs.
“Feel better?” Oscar asked, spooning the contents of the pot into two bowls. Kay nodded and accepted one of the bowls from him, finding a generous helping of stew within. A rich brown with just a hint of green, smelling of potatoes, peas and hints of the spices that Oscar could wield like a wizard.
“Eh, passable I guess,” Kay said.
“Yeah, yeah. Eat while it’s hot you little brat.”
Kay did so with enthusiasm, all but inhaling the food in the process. Oscar joined her, choosing to sit on the floor for some reason, eating his own bowl with far less zeal but no less enjoyment. From some hidden compartment, he produced two hunks of bread, keeping one for himself and handing the other to Kay. They ate in silence for a time, broken only by the sounds of chewing and the clinking of cutlery.
“You look in hold?” Oscar eventually asked.
“Yeah,” Kay said. “Kind of a poor showing.”
Oscar shrugged. “I’ve seen worse.”
“That makes it better?”
“You’d rather it be empty?”
Kay gave a bitter bark of laughter. “Maybe. At least then I’d know the universe was screwing with me specifically.”
That comment was left to linger in the air for several minutes as both returned to their meals. Kay’s bowl soon ran empty, leaving only vestiges for her to scoop up with her remaining crust of bread.
“Maybe we should try somewhere else,” Kay said.
Oscar shook his head. “We only got a few hours of daylight left. At least with this patch we know there’s something worth digging for.”
“Don’t use your logic on me human.”
“Am I wrong?
Kay blew out her cheeks in frustration. He wasn’t wrong, of course. They just didn’t have the time to pull up and go looking elsewhere. She just didn’t want to admit it, not relishing the idea of spending four more hours elbow deep in filth.
“We can switch for the afternoon if you want.”
She raised an eyebrow at him in surprise. “You don’t have to-”
“We’ll get more done if one of us isn’t about to spew their guts across the deck. And besides, I saw that muck, you’ve suffered enough.”
Kay chuckled. “You’re aware you’re not helping the dad comparison, right?”
“Alright, I’ll stay in the crane then.”
“Hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves old man.”
“Brat,” Oscar said with a smirk.
As promised, Oscar took over sorting duties for the afternoon. Kay wanted to feel sorry about it, she really did, but could only manage a sense of relief. Even through her respirator, she could still detect the faint whiff of compost clawing its way up her nose. An afternoon spent far away from that, better, one where she got to sit down? That was just too tempting to pass up.
Settling into the crane control booth, Kay quickly brought it back to life, prompting only a quiet cough from the engine. Once Oscar signaled his readiness, Kay resumed dredging right where they had left off, releasing the claw and letting it sink into the Sea. The controls shook under her grip, the churn stronger than she remembered it being when they had first arrived. She hoped it wouldn’t get too much worse. The Pacific’s legs could only handle so much.
After the customary handful of seconds, Kay hit the recall and watched as the cable went taunt. The shudder in her controls grew worse as the mechanism fought the churn, struggling to pull the claw free of the Sea. Ultimately the crane eventually won, and the claw burst free of the surface. Kay let out a long breath as she hoisted it up over the deck.
Catching sight of it, Kay was immediately convinced that the universe had indeed decided to dunk on her specifically today. The mass clutched in the claw barely had any organic matter in it, downright sanitary compared to what she’d had to deal with today.
Kay stared at it for a long moment, trying to figure out what the punchline to this no doubt hilarious joke was. Looking to Oscar was no help, providing only a dismissive shrug and gesture for her to get on with it. Somehow Kay resisted the urge to throw it back out of spite and instead dumped it in the bin.
Oscar quickly began to sort, efficiently separating what was worth keeping in the same way Kay had done earlier. He kept far more than he discarded, sizable piles quickly forming at the edges of the bin to be later separated into the appropriate chute. That was a good sign, a very good sigh. Much as the timing annoyed her, she found it difficult to much care as Oscar flashed her the coveted thumbs up of a good dredge.
Hands trembling with anticipation, Kay returned the claw to the same spot and dropped it again. When she hit the recall, a second load emerged with much the same look about it, clean, valuable trash that earned a second thumbs up from Oscar. She went back for a third dredge, then a fourth. By the fifth, Kay was letting herself believe they might finally have hit the jackpot.
On the sixth dredge, Kay let the claw sink deeper, chasing even greater treasures that may lurk below. When this one broke the surface, it brought with it another piece of farm equipment. Some type of plow or planter, Kay neither knew nor particularly cared. What she did care about was its almost exquisite condition.
Unlike the others stowed in the hold, this machine showed almost no sign of rust or damage. They’d have to take it apart to be sure, but such a condition implied the tantalizing possibility of working parts. Working parts that would go for a much higher price than their scrap metal ever could. A very, very good sign.
Grinning from ear to ear, Kay looked over at Oscar. He nodded at her, flashing an entirely unneeded thumbs up to indicate his approval. Kay rolled her eyes at the man’s cheek and set about getting their prize stowed, bouncing in her seat she guided it down into the hold. Once it was tied down, Kay quickly dropped claw back to the same spot again, eager to see what else they could dredge up. More pristine equipment perhaps, maybe something even better. The possibilities made her giddy as she hit the recall.
Things started to go wrong almost immediately. Without warning, the cable suddenly stopped moving, caught on something under the surface. All slack, what little there was, immediately vanished from the cable as winch and churn fought one another for supremacy. The Pacific was caught in the middle, lurching violently to one side as the crane continued trying to pull the claw up.
The sudden motion caught Oscar off guard, Kay watching in horror as he slid helplessly towards the edge. He would have gone straight over had he not been able to grab hold of a railing at the last second. He was left dangling precariously over the edge, scrabbling with his free hand for better purchase and having a hard time finding any.
Swallowing her panic, Kay tired the emergency release. Nothing happened. Either the mechanism was broken or something else was holding the cable in place. Oscar began to slide further, losing what little grip he had and coming ever closer to churning Sea below. He wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer.
Seeing no other option, Kay used her foot to flip open a safety cover and stomped down hard on the pedal within. Terrified it wouldn’t work either, she was relieved to hear a metallic clanking sound, followed the muted boom of the cable being severed.
Instantly all tension was released, so suddenly that the Pacific lurched back in the opposite direction. The motion carried Oscar with it, throwing him hard against the deck. Kay could only hold on for dear life and pray that the ship’s legs would be able to take the strain. For a time everything was creaking, shaking and uncertainty, but the old girl managed to hold on long enough to find stable footing.
As the deck leveled out, Kay sprung from her seat and sprinted towards where Oscar had landed. To her great relief, he was already sitting up by the time she reached him.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, dropping down next to him.
“I’m alright, just a bit tenderized.”
The two of them lapsed in silence after that, simply letting the wave of exhaustion wash over them as the adrenaline wore off. Kay took the time to take stock of the ship. An extensive selection of exciting new metallic groans filled the air, fresh stresses on the Pacific’s already creaking hill. The deck wasn’t entirely level, one of the legs sitting at an awkward angle that would need to be looked at to make sure it wasn’t damaged. Glancing down into the hold, Kay could see that some of the cargo had broken loose, smashing into walls and one another, leaving scuffs and dents in their wake.
But it was the crane that suffered the worst. The arm was badly bent, several struts broken entirely by the strain. From its arm, the end of its severed cable swayed gently in the breeze. Completely disabled. There would be no more dredging today, no more dredging at all until they got the thing replaced.
She turned back to Oscar, finding him turning to face her at the same time.
“Well shit,” Kay said.
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