3.

Bright Hope Harbour. Kay had never been able to figure out if the place had been named optimistically or ironically.

For starters, the place was not bright by any stretch of the imagination. A large metal dome formed the bulk of the structure, long ago rendered bull by layers of filth and grime. Even sitting high above the Sea on its man support legs, it was difficult to pick it out from the background gloom of the sky. It would be nearly impossible were it not for the pulsing light sitting atop the dome and even that only worked to a point.

Hope was inaccurate in less obvious ways. True, the place had a distinctly ramshackle feel to it. Everything just a little uneven, a strong vein of the slapdash running through each part of its construction. Even beneath the layers of filth, Kay could see where breaches in the surface had been patched over with the industrial equivalent of duct-tape, bad welds and differing materials doing a poor job of holding up to the elements. The very embodiment of ‘eh, that’ll do’ run wild.

Each was a by-product of harbour’s explosive founding. Years ago, the surrounding area had suddenly become flush with extremely valuable salvage, waves of pristine material and functional technology pulled to the surface by the churn. Dredgers had come in droves to seek their fortunes, followed closely by a a flood of support services. Both groups had worked to hastily throw Bright Hope together to have solid ground to work from, emphasis on haste. There was money to be made after all. Getting something working now had been more important than keeping it working later.

And it had worked for a time, money practically flowing through the place like a river. Old dredger tales from the time spoke of being able to stick your hand in the Sea and pull out small fortunes by the fistful. Kay believed them. She’d seen more than a few hook-handed dredgers in her life.

Then the Sea, ever fickle, had stolen it all away. A shift in the churn swallowed the waves back beneath the surface, taking the riches with them. Almost overnight, the area had gone from the stuff of legend to just another pile of trash. Just as quickly as it had been built, Bright Hope was abandoned. Those who could afford to departed in search of better prospects. Those who could not were left to scrape by on whatever they had left.

The Harbour part of the name, at least, was accurate. The place was unquestionably a harbour. A dull, forgotten, utterly gutted harbour sitting on the edge of the Sea with its perfectly fitting, optimistically ironic name.

Through the pilothouse window, Kay watched as the dome steadily grew bigger before them. She had plenty of time to appreciate the sight as they toddled along at less than a quarter speed. Oscar had firmly told her to go no faster before sequestering himself to the engine room to keep direct watch over the infernal contraption. They’d already had one major catastrophe that day, they didn’t need another.

Kay understood the need, she just didn’t like it. Being left alone at the helm with nothing to do but listen as the legs clicked rhythmically was not her idea of entertainment. Worse, the leg that had been damaged was ever so slightly off beat, just enough that it was impossible for Kay to lose herself in the sound. She almost regretted the fact that it was perfectly functional. The savings would be small comfort if the noise drove her straight over the edge.

For the moment, her sanity was saved by the crackle of the intercom.

“How much longer?” came Oscar’s voice. He sounded, alarmed.

“Almost there,” Kay said back. “Was just about to radio in for docking.”

“Make sure they don’t hold us up. Old girl’s barely holding on by a thread down here.”

“Is it that bad?”

“Will be if we don’t get on some solid ground. Soon.”

With those ominous words, the link fell silent, leaving Kay a bit confused if that was permission to speed up. Deciding to obey calm Oscar, she instead switched over to the shortwave.

“Bright Hope Control this is dredging vessel Pacific, approaching east-northeast. Requesting entry clearance at gate four, over.

A brief crackle of static came back, soon followed by the familiar voice of the dock controller.

“Roger Pacific. You’re back early.”

“We had uh, mechanical difficulties.”

“What, you turned it on?”

Kay went to throw her own quip back at the man but a deeply concerning rumble from below decks reminded her of more pressing concerns.

“Sure, whatever, can we come in now?”

“You’re no fun Kay. Entry clearance granted. Proceed on course to the beacon and power down. You know the drill.”

“Second part won’t be a problem. Proceeding on course, out.”

Closing the channel, Kay returned her focus back to driving the ship. Not that much focus was required, she knew every approach around Bright Hope backward, forwards and from every other imaginable angle. Still, given the shape they were in, no harm in properly paying attention this time around.

Keeping the ship as steady as she could, Kay scanned their surrounding until she spotted the docking beacon. It hung from a long cable attached to the underside structure, pulsing steadily to make itself obvious in the gloom. Using her controls, Kay moved them towards it until the light sat roughly above their bow. A bit off center but not a bad approach given what she was working with.

Just as she got them settled into position, the entire ship gave a shudder so powerful that it rattled the pilothouse windows. The engine tried its best to carry on but after a few sputtering coughs, it gave in and fell silent, leaving only the creak of metal behind.

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?” Kay asked over the intercom.

“Uh yeah, that was definitely on purpose, lets go with that,” Oscar replied. “I’m good whenever.”

Kay tried to think of a witty reply for that, but she ultimately came up with nothing. Blowing out a long breath, Kay switched back to the shortwave.

“Bright Hope Control, Pacific in position, ready for pickup.”

“Roger Pacific. Hold onto something.”

Over the noise of the Sea, Kay heard a muted clanking sound begin, quickly growing louder and faster as the mechanism spun up. A klaxon joined in the on the noise, followed soon after by a howl of wind as the gate above them began to slide open. Light poured out from within, kay shielding her eyes as the dazzling display briefly blinded her.

When her eyes adjusted, she looked back to find the gate fully open, exposing the claw of a large crane sitting within. More clanking sounded as the claw lowered towards to them, prongs splaying wide to grip firmly on either side of the Pacific’s hull. Kay’s controls gave a quick beep as pressure sensors confirmed a solid grip and she quickly set the all clear back to Control. Then she held on tight as the crane began to lift them from the Sea.

They rose into the air, slowly at first but with growing speed as the grip was shown to be solid. Soon they cleared the trash entirely, leaving the legs to dangle uselessly from the hull, gyros vainly searching for something to stand on. A few swift commands from Kay had them reeled in and neatly stowed away just in time for them to pass through the open gate and into Bright Hope docks.

The best description Kay had ever been able to come up with for the area was ‘dry dock that had gotten away from them’. A dense mess of ship berths, warehouses, loading platforms and repair facilities, all crammed together underneath the sloping roof above. Parts of it looked stacked on top of one another, taking advantage of every square inch of space they could get away with and even a few that they technically couldn’t.

With such limited space to work with, the docks relied on cranes to move things around. Utterly dominating the back wall, they ranged in size from the small cargo haulers to the mighty ship lifters, one of which currently help the Pacific in its grasp. The same design philosophy as the rest of the docks applied, tracks pressed so closely together that the arms moved past one another with barely a hairsbreadth of clearance.

Cramped as everything was, the docks felt oppressively empty. Most of the berths were empty and aside from the occasional person scurry over the catwalks, there was hardly a soul in sight. It made sense, most of the dredgers wouldn’t be back for hours yet, not while there was still daylight to burn. Kay certainly wouldn’t have been back yet, given a choice, every empty berth a cruel reminder of what they were missing out on by being here.

Eventually, they arrived at the Pacific’s own berth, distinguishable only by its dock code painted on the metal in faded white letters. Coming to s a stop over it, the crane gently deposited the ship into the opening, holding it in place while Kay engaged the clamps to hold them in place. Oscar emerged on deck and quickly ran a lap of the hull, checking to make sure they were secure. With his all clear, Kay switched back to the shortwave.

“All clear, thanks Control.”

“No problem,” Control called back. “Anything else I can do for you? Coffee? Snacks? Selection of fine wines?”

Kay rolled her eyes at the mike. Did he think he was actually being funny with these jokes?

“Nah, we’re good,” Kay said.

“Suit yourself. Have fun fixing that rust bucket.”

“You’re a charmer Control,” Kay said, switching the radio off before he could get another word in.

Leaving the pilothouse, Kay descended to the deck to join Oscar, who already had hold door open wide. The depressingly small amount of stuff within was no less disappointing now than the last time she’d assessed it.

“We’re going to break our spines unloading this without the crane,” Kay said.

Oscar shook his head. “No reason we can’t empty the bins the normal way. And I can start striping the bigger stuff for parts while you go sort out the repairs.”

Kay gave a bitter bark of laughter. “The simplest of tasks then.”

“Hey,” Oscar turned to face her fully. “We’ll fix it. We always do.”

Whatever witticism she’d been intending to throw back at him fizzled at those words. Damn him and his infuriating optimism. Would it kill him to indulge in just a little self-pity? Wallow in some self doubt maybe? At least then there would be some indication of a flawed human being in there, one that would have a reason to keep hanging out with her.

Kay shook her head, trying to refocus. This wasn’t helpful to their current predicament. They had a problem and only one realistic way to solve it, standing around here was just wasting time.

“Yeah, yeah, you have fun with your toys old man,” Kay said, turning towards the gangplank to disembark. “I have a meeting with his majesty.”

*

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