Kay awoke with a start, wrenched from sleep by the sharp squawking of her morning alarm. Her immediate response to the sudden state of consciousness was to lie there unmoving, brain trying to comprehend what was going on. It succeeded after a moment of work, the reward for which was the realization that she was now awake. Sub-optimal, to say the least.
Pawing at the alarm to make it shut up, Kay flopped back against the mattress to consider her options. Going back to sleep was an attractive one, rolling over and drifting back off. It wouldn’t be that hard either as, despite the alarm’s insistence that it was morning, the room was still pitch dark. A side effect of her apartment’s complete lack of windows, the line between night and day was an arbitrary one at best. So long as she kept the overhead lights off, morning would never truly come, and she could keep right on sleeping. That would be nice.
That would also be very, very stupid. With a strangled growl from the back of her throat, Kay levered herself out of bed and stumbled towards the bathroom, navigating by touch and memory. Without thinking she flicked on the light above the sink, instantly regretting the decision as a dazzling glare flooded her vision like a punch to the face. She managed to hold herself upright by gripping the sink, waiting for the spots behind her eyes to settle.
Opening her eyes again, Kay found her own reflection staring back at her from the mirror. It was a wretched looking creature, eyes sunken and bloodshot, corners crusted with heavily with dried sleep. Both had dark bags hanging under them, contrasting sickly with the red blotches across her cheeks. Above, her hair was a rat’s next of knots and tangles. Below, her lips sat parched and dry, cracked almost to the point of bleeding.
She looked like hammered shit. Felt like it too, fatigue hanging heavy on her bones, making her feel twice her age. Christ, what Kay would not give for a day off. Just a nice, relaxing twenty-four hours where she could sleep for as long as she wanted and spend the rest in her pajamas, doing absolutely nothing. Just thinking about it got Kay feeling wistful, which quickly bloomed into frustration and resentment.
Kay quickly forced both emotions back down. She did not need this right now. It was going to be another long day, one that she quite literally could not afford to miss. Dwelling on the unfairness of the world would just make an already bad time even worse. Kay knew this from long, crushing experience.
Deep breaths helped, at least enough to get her moving again. If nothing else, the tiny little existential crisis had gotten her fully awake, even if she Still felt ready to collapse. Little things. Focus on the little things.
Gathering her strength, Kay set about preparing herself for the outside world. A shower to purge the last of her grogginess, presentable work clothes that weren’t completely threadbare, hair tied back to in its default braid to keep it out of her eyes. It managed to slightly improve her appearance from wretched to bedraggled. A quick protein bar for breakfast, day bag slung over her shoulder and Kay was out the door, ready to face the day.
Or at least that was what she kept telling herself.
Several ships were already getting underway by the time Kay made it to the docks. Although the sealed dome hid it from the them, the sun had already risen outside into the closest approximation of daylight the Sea ever got. The larger, more motivated crews always sought to take full advantage of that, making it their business to be the first ones through the gates. Kay hoped, with a little luck, that she would be following them out soon.
The Pacific was right where they had left it, sitting quietly in its berth. Looking at it, Kay couldn’t help but notice that the old girl was also looking rather wretched. Dents and tarnishes covered the hull, built up over successive years of sailing the Sea, many more than she’d been built for. Her legs had suffered the worst, yesterday far from the first time they had been bent in the line of duty. Rust was a plague on anything more complicated than a flat metal surface, veins of reddish-brown running like rivers in complex patterns. About the only thing not held together by duct tape and prayer was the new crane they’d bolted on yesterday. Even that somehow already looked creaky, as if corrupted by the Pacific’s decrepitude. The whole thing looked more like it belonged in the Sea rather than striding atop it.
Doing her best not to think about that, Kay crossed over the gangplank and stepped up onto the deck, making a beeline for the hatch and descending into the hallway below decks.
“Come on you little bastard, work!”
Kay chuckled, recognizing the voice immediately. Pulling the engine room door, a wave of heat washed over her from within, filled with the scent of grease and burning metal. The titular engine dominated much of the space, two powerful cylinders running the length of the room, drive shafts for the legs jutting out in every direction. Oscar stood amid it all, tinkering with exposed machinery as incoherent vocalizations streamed from his mouth, carrying the spirit of swears if not the grammatical integrity.
“You talking to me?” Kay asked.
“Are you leaking oil like a sieve?”
“Not last I checked,” Kay said.
“Then no, I am not talking to you.”
Kay started to laugh but it quickly petered out as the implication of his words started sinking in.
“Are we good?” Kay asked.
With one final growl, Oscar kicked the side of the engine, producing a hollow bang.
“Yeah we’re good, I’ll just have to keep an eye on it.” He turned to face her, mutely taking in her disheveled appearance. “Rough morning?”
“Normal morning,” Kay said, waving away his concern. “Anything else need doing?”
Oscar shook his head. “Nope. We can leave whenever.”
“Right, get us squared away then. I want to be gone soon as I get back.”
Oscar nodded one last time, turning to fiddle with some other bit of the engine. Kay left him to it, making a quick stop in the crew cabin to drop off her bag, before climbing back topside. Disembarking, she retraced her steps back towards King’s dockside office.
Unlike her last visit, this one was entirely expected. Lax as some of the harbour’s policies were, it still required all ships to register where they intended to dredge before they could leave. Not exactly a gold standard safety measure but certainly better than nothing.
“Good morning your majesty,” Kay said through the sharpest of smirks.
“Not in the mood today,” King shot back, filing something away in a cabinet. He looked tired, more so than usual. Apparently, everyone was having a bad morning today.
“Aw, you’ll hurt my feelings your grace.”
“Spare me. Grid coordinates?”
Getting the point, Kay rattled off the string of numbers corresponding to a region of the Sea around Bright Hope. After noting them down in his records, King marked a small magnet with the Pacific’s name and took it over to a large map hanging on the wall. It showed a simplified grid layout of the Sea, centered on the harbour and stretching out for miles in every direction.
Around the harbour was drawn a large, red circle that stopped well before the edge of the map. Every other marker already on the wall sat within it, as would the rest once they were registered. The circle was the limit of safety for a dredger, the region around Bright Hope where the churn was relatively well mapped, at least enough that conditions could be reliably predicted. So long as you stayed behind that line, other vessels would be able to reach you in an emergency. Beyond the red line, you were on your own, out of the range of both rescue and radio. Wander out there and you were likely to never to be seen again.
Kay knew that better than most.
Once the Pacific’s marker was up, well behind the line with the others, King settled behind his desk and resumed scribbling.
“Do you just do that on reflex? The writing?”
He paused to glare at her a moment before turning a page and continuing.
“Don’t forget, you have a payment due at the end of the week.”
Kay rolled her eyes. As with everything else in Bright Hope, if it was even vaguely official, it involved King in some way. Debt collector was just another of his many jobs.
“You’re all heart, your majesty.”
“Someone has to be the bad guy.”
“I thought that was my job?”
“No, you’re the annoying one. Now go away and let me work.”
Kay returned to the Pacific to find the old girl had once again been brought back from the brink. She chugged away ponderously, belching thick clouds of exhaust that lingered nearby like a sulphurous aura. To the outside observer, the idea that anyone would try to move this thing, let alone take it out on the turbulent churn of the Sea, would seem absurd. Kay was just glad it was working again.
Oscar met her as she was crossed the gangplank, using a badly stained cloth to wipe soot off his face.
“Apparently everyone is having a bad morning. She going to hold together?”
Oscar shrugged. “Like I said, I’ll have to keep an eye on it. Try and keep us at three quarters until I can get a better idea what we’re in for.”
Kay blew out a breath. “That’s going to put us behind.”
“No choice, unless you’d rather have no engine at all.”
Expressing her thoughts on that with a low growl and random strangling gestures with her hands, Kay took a moment to center herself before trying words again.
“Alright fine, we’ll make it work. Go strap yourself in, we’ll be underway soon.”
With a shared nod, the two of them split up, Oscar back belowdecks, Kay towards the waiting helm in the pilothouse. Settling into her seat, she elected to do a double pass of the usual checks. It seemed a prudent step considering all the abuse they’d put the Pacific through over the last couple of days.
When everything came back happy, Kay switched on the radio and waited for the acknowledging burst of static before speaking.
“Bright Hope Control this is dredging vessel Pacific, requesting cast-off through gate four.”
“Roger Pacific.” A pause. “Seriously?”
Control had presumably just caught sight of the Pacific through his screens. From his tone, he apparently wasn’t impressed.
“I mean, not for me. Can’t say the same for you.”
“Control…” Kay’s words were somewhere between sigh and snarl.
“Alright, alright. Cast-off to gate four coming up. Hold tight.”
In short order, a crane moved into position above them, dropping its claw to lift them up out of the berth. As they moved through the air Kay engaging the drive system, priming the legs to take their weight once they were down. The Pacific protested every step of the process but did nothing that Kay hadn’t see before. In short order, everything was settled into position and ready to begin. So far, so good.
Below them, gate four began to slide open, heralded by the call of yet another klaxon. The crane slowed to a stop above the opening and began to lower them down towards the Sea.
They were halfway down when something exploded.
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