4.

To meet with the King of Bright Hope, one first had to find their way to his throne. This was no simple task as away from the berths, everything descended into a twisting network of hallways, catwalks and maintenance shafts that were technically restricted. Signs were rare, a straight line from point A to B even rarer. Kay couldn’t even begin to imagine what would be like for someone who had never seen it before. As it was, even she only knew it by route memorization and a long history of becoming hopelessly lost.

Drawing on those hard-earned memories, Kay quickly wound her way through the maze until she arrived at a familiar staircase. It didn’t go all the way to the level she wanted but it did give her more direct access to another set of stairs that did. Climbing up a total of ten combined flights, she finally arrived at her destination, the holiest of holies, the Executive Level.

A grand title for what was essentially just a larger hallway with some offices lining one wall. Each was rented out to an interested party, scrap companies and the like, to give them some onsite presence. Few were consistently used, Kay noting as she passed that only two of them even occupied by flesh and blood humans. That didn’t surprise her. Most business in Bright Hope was done remotely, funneled through the very man she was here to see.

At the end of the hall sat the only permanently occupied office of the lot. It looked no different from the rest, save for the words “King’s Court” someone had crudely painted on the outside. A smile spread across Kay’s face as she pulled the door open, taking only a few steps into the room before dropping into an exaggerated curtsy.

“Greetings to his majesty. May your reign by long and prosperous.”

“Have we never heard of knocking?” Came the annoyed reply.

Kay’s smile widened as she took in the King of Bright Hope: Harbourmaster Jacob Allister King.

The man all but embodied the phrase “beleaguered civil servant”. His hair had long ago gone grey, thinning around the edges even as the body of it fought valiantly to hold off baldness. Lines scarred the deep pits of his eyes, giving the impression that he was blind, even as his sharp eyes caught every detail. He looked, well not old per-say, though he was up there in years. More he looked worn down, frayed around the edges, his long years of single-handedly keeping the port running taking their toll, in triplicate.

King’s “court” reflected its monarch rather well. While the office was not small, it certainly felt like it was thanks to the frankly ludicrous amount of paperwork that had been crammed into it. Piles, literal piles, of paper beyond the ken of even the most impressive filing cabinet sat strewn around the space, burying everything unlucky enough to be caught underneath them. At its center lay King’s throne, a simple wood and steel desk with a faux leather armchair behind it. King presently sat in the that very seat, ruling over his kingdom by means of scribbling away with a pen on a bit of paper.

“A thousand pardons your majesty. I meant no offense and shall endeavor to redeem myself in your benevolent eyes.”

King continued writing. “Why do I let you stay in my harbour again?”

“Because I’m just so darn lovable,” Kay said.

“Oh of course. How could I have forgotten?” He paused in his writing to reread something, then continued. “What do you want?”

“I need want something to come see you?”

King paused his writing again, casing her a withering look. Kay instantly reigning her smile. He was in a mood today, probably better that she didn’t push her luck.

“I need to requisition some parts,” Kay said, approaching the desk.

King, shockingly, put his pen down to address her properly. Not a surprise, this was part of his actual job. Or rather, one of the several jobs that circumstance had forced him into. When Bright Hope had been effectively abandoned, one of the first groups to leave on mass had been the officials. The clerks and bookkeepers, the people who handled all the boring minutia of running a dredger economy. Reliant on dredgers for work, they had pulled up stakes with all the rest and gone in search of work elsewhere.

With no one to delegate to, King had inherited all their jobs, becoming sole controller of everything from docking records to trade liaison for basically every company with a stake in Bright Hope. How he managed to do all that without leaping into the Sea at earliest opportunity no one knew, and no one dared press the matter. Without him, most of their jobs quite simply would not be possible.

“What parts do you need?” King asked, pulling Kay back to the present.

“Oh, just a winch and spool of cable.”

“Hm, shouldn’t be a problem.”

“And a crane arm.”

“Okay…”

“And a claw. If you have one.”

King stared at her in much the same way he would a plump water balloon flying at his face. Kay held the gaze as best she could, trying to pretend everything was normal.

“…so just a whole new crane then?”

“Mechanical problems,” Kay insisted, injecting every bit of charm she had into the words. King just continued staring at her until his shoulders deflated with a sigh and a slight roll of the eyes.

“Alright, fine. Let me get the forms filled out.”

Rolling his chair back from the desk, King began to dig through the mounds of paper sitting on the floor behind him. That section was the crown jewel of his filing system, a heaping mess that seemed less like a pile and more like a mass that just bulged up out of the floor. It reminded Kay of the Sea. Messy, chaotic and hiding precious things.

King turned out to be the skilled dredger of that metaphor. With a motion that Kay didn’t fully catch, he extracted a thin sheaf of papers from the middle of a stack, somehow keeping the whole from collapsing in the process. Rolling back to his desk, he took up a pen and resumed scribbling. Kay expected questions but he didn’t even look up once until he handed her the finished product.

It was a standard requisition form, the same as hundreds of others that swam around her in this sea of paper. All her information had already filled in, King apparently knowing all of it off by heart. Kay tired not to think about what that meant as she skimmed the pages, double checking that everything was correct. All looked fine and Kay was just about to sign her name at the bottom when her eyes fell on the total price for the parts. That was quite a few zeros.

“Uh…can I…” Kay began.

“Yes, you can borrow against your haul.”

“Thanks,” Kay said, smiling to cover up her embarrassment. Taking up a pen, she signed her name and handed the whole thing back across the desk.

“Give it an hour to process,” King said, placing it in a box labeled ‘headaches’. “We’ll square up payment after you get your haul unloaded.”

“You’re the best,” Kay said, turning to leave. “I ever tell you that?”

“Every time you’re in here. Now go away.”

*

The rest of the afternoon passed rapidly, not a single second of it spent idle. After returning to the Pacific, Kay had joined Oscar in the tedious task of stripping their salvage of any usable parts. The older pieces were sparse in that regard, so degraded that they were lucky to find even a single gear that hadn’t stripped it teeth long ago. By contrast, the newer pieces were a veritable cornucopia, offering up a wide selection from wiring to mechanicals to even the occasionally piece of electronics. Between the two of them, Kay and Oscar managed to strip an impressive collection from the haul, finished just as a dock crane brought their replacement crane.

Those repairs proved a much more time-consuming task. Replacing the actual arm was easy, a simple matter of loosening and tightening bolts while the dock crane did all the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, that was the only step it could help them with, being too unwieldly for precision work. For everything else they were down to hand carts and old-fashioned muscle. And swearing, but that was more of a style choice.

They started with the winch assembly, the only part just light enough to move with only minor damage to their spines. Working together they moved it over to the base of the crane, hoisting it up to be swapped out with the damaged one. More bolts and several support struts went into making sure it was properly secured.

Lastly came the cable. Wheeling it over as they had the winch, they threaded one end through the machine and attached the other end to the claw. From there it was a simple matter of switching on the winch and letting the mechanism do the rest. With barely any input from either of them, outside of one close call, the claw was quickly reeled in and Pacific once again had a functional crane. The whole process left Kay with both a vague sense of accomplishment and knowledge she would be sore come tomorrow morning. And they weren’t anywhere near done yet.

After a short break to celebrate and dread respectively, the two of them split up for their remaining tasks. Oscar descended below decks, aiming to see if he could yet extract some life from their poor engines.

Kay meanwhile climbed behind the newly resurrected crane controls and began moving their haul out of the hold. Those pieces they had already stripped she deposited directly into the collection bin sitting on the dock next to them. The rest she placed up on the deck, much preferring to work in the merely stale air out here over the stinking miasma of the Pacific’s hold.

She had just finished moving everything and was about to resume stripping out parts when a klaxon sounded. It was joined swiftly by grinding machinery as gates began to open and the largest dock cranes came alive on their tracks. Kay glanced at her watch, confirming what the sudden spike in activity was already telling her. The other dredgers were coming in for the day.

Trying to continue working, Kay found her focus split between her task and watching the procession of ships above. She recognized many of them, the sleek Lassider, the hulking bulk of the Lavender Queen and mighty eight legs of the Allegro. Several berths down, she saw the sister ships Jupiter and Zeus and fancied she could hear their brother captains arguing about who got there first. And, of course, there was the Stellar, glittering as fabulously as always, despite the filth clinging to her hull.

 Kay waved to those that passed close enough, smiling up at the men working on deck. Those that noticed her returned the gesture but the change in their demeanor’s didn’t escape Kay’s notice. The best of them simply shook their heads sadly before returning to their work. The worst took the time to stop and stare, pointing her out to their fellows as they leaned in to share some unheard comment or joke. Bastards could at least have the common courtesy to try hiding their blatant rubbernecking.

Sighing heavily, Kay turned away from them and back towards their pile of salvage. There was still work that needed to be done and no one else was going to do it for her. She still felt the stares burning into her back regardless.

*

After another two hours, Kay finally had the entire haul processed and ready for sale. Their sorting bins were emptied, contents weighed and shunted away, destined for recycling plants far away from the Sea. Every conceivably salvageable bit of the machines had been stripped and sorted, set aside to be assessed for sale separately. The rusting husks that remained had been thrown in the collection bin, along with the remains of their old crane. No sense wasting perfectly good scrap after all.

Just as Kay had finished loading the last box of parts, Oscar poked his head up from below decks.

“So how screwed are we?” Kay asked.

“Terribly,” Oscar said. He walked over to her and began to dig through the parts. He selected a gear, holding it up for quick inspection before tossing it back on the pile.

“You can fix it then?” Kay asked.

“Going to need some time but yeah.” A second gear failed his test and got thrown back. On a whim, Kay reached in and held up a random offering. It passed muster and disappeared into the depths of Oscar’s tool belt. “Everything alright up here?”

“Just finished. I was about to go cash out.”

Oscar grunted, taking another gear off the pile and some spindly part whose purpose escaped her. Kay flashed him a smirk.

“Try not to take all our profit for the day.”

“Do you want a working ship tomorrow or not?”

“Yes. I’d also like to eat at some point,” Kay said, stopping just short of sticking her tongue out at him. “Speaking of, you want to come over for dinner tonight?”

“Over for dinner or bring you dinner?”

“Yes.”

Oscar rolled his eyes before taking one last part from the box before turning back below decks. “That’s all I need. Meet up for six at your place?”

“Don’t be late” Kay shot back, earning only a disinterested grunt in reply.

A quick call into Control brought a dock crane to pick up the collection container. Kay watched it go for a moment before losing it in the mess of movement raging above. With all the dredgers in for the day, the dock cranes were fully engaged, moving cargo to and from the ships with abandon. It felt busier than normal somehow, it must have been a very profitable afternoon of dredging for everyone. Good for them, Kay was very happy for them and not at all sour. Honest.

Putting aside her totally not jealous annoyance, Kay disembarked and dove back into the maze of hallways. Her destination was much closer this time, a mere one level up to the closest thing Bright Hope had to a bank. Although that was overselling it. The place was mostly just a converted storeroom that King manned during the afternoon rush, putting on another of his many hats to become the harbour’s purser. During those hours, he was the man to talk to about being paid.

“His majesty honors we mere mortals with his presence,” Kay said as she approached the booth.

“Were the parts to your liking?” he asked, remaining focused on his ledger.

“Well enough, they’ll hold,” Kay said. “Any trouble with my haul?”

“Just waiting on-”

His words were cut off by a thudding sound as a pneumatic tube on the wall next to him disgorged a small plastic canister. Removing it from the pipe, King unscrewed the top and perused the papers within. Barely pausing to nod, he took up a rubber stamp and slammed it solidly down on the surface, marking it with Bright Hope’s official seal. From a cash box he extracted a selection of bills, securing them in place with a simple metal clip before handing the whole thing to Kay.

“His majesty is most gracious and-”

Kay stopped as she got a closer look at the bundle’s contents. Her pause seemed to catch more of Kings attention than anything else, going so far as to pause in his work to look up at her.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“This is it?” Kay asked right back, holding up the paper to show off the total. The bundle was bills was notably thin against the paper.

“You borrowed against your haul,” King said, gesturing at the bundle of bills. “Minus fuel and fees, that’s the remainder. You did have light day.”

“Not this light! Should be at least double this!”

King shrugged helplessly. “I don’t control the market Kay. I can only pay you what your haul is worth.”

Kay wanted to argue but her more rational side held her tongue. There really was nothing King could do for her, short of literally breaking laws. He’d technically already done more than he had to by getting her those parts. Didn’t make the sum any less pitiful, especially considering all the disasters that had led up to it.

“Yeah, I know,” Kay said. “Thanks.

King looked like he was about to say something more but stopped himself, choosing instead to simply nod and return to his work. Any further conversation was put to rest when another group arrived. Kay stepped aside to let them pass, the two men barely noticing her as she left the room.

They had just started to square up when a scream of utter frustration rang out, making all three men jump.

*

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