5.

Kay barely noticed the walk back to her apartment. She knew the route so well by this point that she required only a minimum of conscious thought to navigate it. Turn left here, up three flights until you hear the noisy vent, then down the hall, third door on the right. If you hit the fuse boxes shaped kind of like a butterfly, you’ve gone too far.

She enjoyed the fact since not needing to pay active attention allowed Kay to instead focus on nothing at all. By conscious choice, she allowed no thought more complicated than placing one foot in front of the other to pass through her mind. She even took the long way just to prolong the state a few minutes more. So long as it lasted, there were no crises to address, no setbacks to endure, no worries to weigh on her mind. For that short span from docks to apartment, Kay enjoyed some semblance of freedom. It was possibly the nicest feeling she’d felt all day.

As she wound her way deeper, Kay let her eyes wander over the bare metal walls of Bright Hope’s residential wing. Not even here were they granted free space, the philosophy of cramming everything in wherever it fit haunting every nook and cranny. Some consideration had been given to human traffic, various mechanical and electrical components built high or low to keep the walls at walking level smooth and clear. For the most part at least. It wasn’t a hard or fast rule and plenty of hazards remained, ready to catch those without sharp vigilance or good instincts. Kay, possessing the second, breezed past without a scratch.

Soon, too soon, the narrow hallway widened into a small public plaza, granting at last some blessed elbow room. An overambitious attempt to simulate a park, the place was strewn with the remnants of the effort. Benches lay scattered around in clusters, framing planter boxes that had never held anything green. Empty storefronts lay decrepit along the walls, some abandoned, most never occupied in the first part.

On the largest open wall sat the centerpiece of the project, a large mural pained directly onto the metal. Stretching the length and height of the wall, it depicted a pastoral scene of rolling green hills, sunrise peaking over the horizon to bathe the land in a pleasant yellow glow. Splayed across the top in flowing red script was the title of the piece, Tomorrow.

Apparently, it was based off a real place, far away from Bright Hope and the Trash Sea, where green thing still grew wild. Kay didn’t know about that but it had been a wonderful rendering regardless, intended to add some cheer and perhaps a little hope to the hardworking residents of the harbour.

Such lofty notions were gone now, faded into a dusty, grey pallor of its former glory. Graffiti covered the wall liberally in a patchwork of vandalism, the kind of thing produced by an excess of both drink and emotion. Most of it was scrawled text, joined by the occasional blotch that no doubt had made perfect sense to someone at the time. Some of the chaos instead sought to more accurately reflect the reality of Bright Hope, covering the pastoral field in crude piles of trash, complete with wavy lines to imitate the stench.

The most notable addition was a simple “NO” drawn in large black letters next to the title. The many other contributors had shied away from obscuring this addition, leaving a stark frame of clear space that ensured it was obvious to even the most cursory glance. Thus was the piece re-dubbed, No Tomorrow.

Kay had never been able to decide if the changes made the mural better or worse and instead elected not to think about it at all.

Shaking her head, Kay quickly passed through the plaza and entered another hallway. Apartment doors lined the walls within, like the Executive Level but much smaller and closer together. Each was labeled with a simple stenciled number, Kay’s being number fifteen in the row. Sliding her key into the lock, she had to wrestle with the latch a moment before it would turn, the tracks squeaking loudly as the door slid open. Darkness met her from within, but memory guided her to the light switch and the room flared into view.

It wasn’t an especially nice apartment. Small even by the standards of Bright Hope, it had a grand total of two rooms, one a bathroom, the other pulling triple duty as kitchen, bedroom and sitting room. Like everything else in her life, everything was pressed up against one another. Her fold out bed, strewn with messy covers and unwashed laundry, sat not three feet from the stove and kitchen table, in turn not four feet from the bathroom door. Some effort had been made to soften the harsh metal walls with a layer of paint and cheap imitation wood fixtures, but they weren’t fooling anyone. Certainly not the woman who lived with them.

From across the room, the framed photograph of Kay’s father watched her enter. It dated back to their first year living in Bright Hope, showing her father standing in front of the Atlantic, the Pacific’s sister ship. A much younger Kay stood next to him on the dock, her arms raised in celebration of some forgotten victory. They both smiled at the camera, her father caught on the cusp of a laugh, making him look even more cheerful. Kay remembered the moment well. It had been a happy one, the beginning of great things.

Blowing out a breath, Kay threw her bag down on the floor and slid the door shut behind her. Oscar would be there soon, and she needed to get this place looking presentable. The dishes weren’t too bad and could be easily stacked out of sight, the food refuse similarly simple to toss away. Her bed could be folded away out of sight and the dust bunnies swept up. They were little things, but they would help.

First though, she needed a shower. Crossing to the bathroom, she twisted the faucet all the way into the red, leaving it to heat up as best it could. Stripping out of her work clothes, she pitched them into the hamper, already half full and growing rather ripe. She hoped the lid would contain the smell for now, not having the time to run down to start a load at the laundry.

Sticking her hand back under the water, she found it as warm as it was going to get and stepped under the cascading stream. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, the barely lukewarm water making her skin prickle uncomfortably. At least she could wash off the stink of the Sea, handfuls of soap eventually freeing her of the layer of grime that clung to her skin. She’d never truly be free of the stench this close to the Sea but she was accustomed enough that she could mostly ignore it. Once she was scrubbed clean, Kay shut the water off and dried herself with a towel, all the while searching for more things could be tidied up.

The table immediately leapt out as an area of concern. It was coated in a layer of paper envelopes, some torn open, others as pristine as the day they had arrived. Each sported a stamp in the vein of “Final Notice” or “Past Due”, bold red ink standing out sharply against the off-white paper. It almost looked like some ghoulish imitation of a tablecloth, one that Kay suspected would make for poor dinner conversation. Opening a drawer in the side of the table, she swept them all inside, shutting it to banish them all from sight. Little things, that was that idea.

She was halfway through sorting out the rest of the kitchen when a knock sounded at the door. Throwing a dishtowel over her shoulder, Kay crossed the room in three steps and pulled it open to reveal Oscar standing on the far side. He held two cloth bags limply in one hand and was also scrubbed clear, looking mildly more human dressed in clean clothes.

“Allo,” Kay said.

“Hey,” He nodded. “Am I late?”

“Oh terribly. We must work on your manners.”

Kay stepped aside and Oscar entered without hesitation, handing her the bags before turning to address the state of her kitchen. Kay left him to his fussing and instead focused on digging through the bags. She quickly realized he he’d brought ingredients rather than finished food. Frozen veggies, flour, oil, a pound of ground beef, more than enough to make something hearty. Kay appreciated the gesture. It gave the veneer, however thin, that she was contributing something of substance to this meal.

Working together, they threw together a simple stir-fry, Oscar working his spice magic to add some proper flavor to the dish. The result easily filled two plates and Kay managed to find two last beers hiding in the back of the fridge. A feast fit for a king, or at least two hungry dredgers, both of whom quickly sat down and tucked in.

“How’s the old girl doing?” Kay asked between mouthfuls. “She still sounded pretty beat up when I left.”

Oscar shrugged. “Stubborn but fixable. I’ll have to go in a bit early tomorrow, but she’ll be ready by cast off.”

Kay almost told him not to push himself, in an appropriately teasing way of course, before remembering she didn’t have that luxury. To make a living, they needed the Pacific running and couldn’t afford to waste prime daylight hours fixing it. Just like with dinner, Kay wasn’t really in a position to not take advantage of her shipmate’s generosity. It wasn’t the first time she’d done so and Kay suspected that it would be far from the last.

Oscar never seemed to care, approaching her blatant mooching the same way he approached everything else in life. He just went with it, seemingly never letting the annoyances get to him. Usually Kay was content to leave it at that but tonight, the question nagged at her mind, building louder and stronger until it could no longer remain unspoken.

“Hey, can I ask you a weird question?” Kay asked.

“Only if you want a weird answer,” Oscar replied.

Kay paused, gathering her courage before asking.

“Why do you stay on?”

It was Oscar’s turn to pause, a forkful of food halfway to his mouth. He put it down, looking at her with an expression that Kay couldn’t quite read. Some bizarre mix of confusion, sympathy and hurt.

“You’re right, that was a weird question,” Oscar finally said.

“I mean, you’re a good dredger,” Kay said, gesturing vaguely in his direction. “Probably the best one I know. You could have your pick of postings if you went looking. Hell, you could probably have your own ship if you wanted. So why do you keep hanging out with my unlucky ass?”

Oscar didn’t answer immediately. Instead he let his eyes wander about the room, looking anywhere but at Kay. When his eyes fell on the photograph of her father, they paused for a notably longer span. It occurred to Kay that Oscar had probably been there, likely the one who had taken the photo.

For long, dragging minutes Oscar stared at the image with the same unreadable expression, muted somewhat by the misty gaze of recollection. Eventually, he turned back to look Kay in eye.

“Too loyal for my own good I guess.”

He returned to his meal; the question apparently settled to his satisfaction. Kay went to say something else but decided against it, choosing to take another swig of her beer instead. Perhaps this was another thing that didn’t bear thinking too hard about.

The remainder of their meal was spent in amiable silence, broken by the occasional bout of small talk, with just a dash of reminiscing thrown in for good measure. Kay found the whole affair immensely enjoyable. With the weight of her nagging thoughts gone, she was able to simply enjoy a good meal with a good friend. Oscar seemed to feel much the same, though it was difficult to tell given that muted grumpy contentment was kind of his default setting.

Inevitably, the food was eaten, the beer drank, and their evening rapidly wound to a close. They did their level best to delay the end, chatting idly about nothing, in no rush to see the coming of tomorrow. Still, despite their best attempts, reality eventually won out

“It’s getting late,” Oscar said, wandering for the door. “I should get going.”

“Probably,” Kay said. “Oh, before you go…”

Kay rose from her seat and crossed to the table, opening a drawer and retrieve a money clip she’d separated earlier from the day’s take.

“Your share,” she said, offering him the bundle of bills.

Oscar took the money, flicking through the bills with a pleased look on his face.

“Not bad for the day we had,” he said. “See, told you it would work out.”

Kay did her best to keep her expression neutral, electing for a tired smile that could hide some of what she was really feeling.

“Yeah, yeah,” Kay said. “See you tomorrow.”

Oscar nodded, giving her a quick pat on the shoulder before leaving, sliding the door shut behind him. Kay gave him a minute to move away before letting out her breath in a quiet sigh. More than half their profit for the day had just walked out the door with her shipmate. What was left would just cover one of her bills. That was something at least. Little things.

Suddenly feeling very tired, Kay turned to unfold her bed and collapse into it. Tomorrow was going to be another long day.

*

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