11.

Even by dredger standards, Oscar tended to get an early start. Before even the early bird crews started to show up, the man could be found aboard the Pacific, tinkering away at some project or another. He preferred it that way, enjoying some peace and quiet before a long day of noise out at Sea. Helped him focus and it fit his crewmate’s schedule well. Kay was many things, but a morning person was not one of them.

As he approached the ship, he took at moment to scan the repair work on the outer hull. It had all gone surprisingly well considering he’d done most of it himself. Kay had needed rest and he hadn’t been about to interrupt it just to get an extra pair of hands, even if it meant the result was far from his best work.

Even just looking at it from the outside he could pick out some of the flaws. A loose bolt here, a misaligned panel there. Little, non-critical things but no less annoying to see. He’d have to keep an eye on them until he could get around them fixed properly but, for the moment, they would work.

Shrugging it off, Oscar climbed aboard and fished out his keys from a pocket. He was in the process of selecting the right one when he noticed that the hatch belowdecks was sitting ajar. Staring at the gap, Oscar furrowed his brow in suspicion. He clearly remembered locking it last night. Stranger still, it didn’t look like the door had been broken open. Someone had unlocked it.

Slowly, Oscar pulled the hatch open and descended below. Looking around, he noticed the light was on in the cabin at the end of the hall. Slowly made his way towards it, growing more confused with each step until he stood before closed door. He hesitated a moment with his hand on the knob before taking a sharp breath and pulling it open.

“Morning.”

Oscar just stood there, thrown for the biggest loop of his life. Kay sat at the table inside the cabin, smirking up at him from a collection of papers she had spread out before her.

“Did I scare you, old man?” she asked.

“You’re…here…” Oscar said, unsure if it was statement or question.

“It’s my ship isn’t it?”

“You’re never here early. Ever.”

Kay shrugged and looked back to the papers. “Feeling motivated.”

Still thrown for a loop, Oscar crossed the room to join her at the table. Looking over her shoulder, he noticed that the papers were a collection of navigation charts of the Sea surrounding Bright Hope. A rather large area at a glance, and Oscar couldn’t help but notice that most of them had a red line drawn across them.

“When can we head out?” Kay asked, glancing back over her shoulder at him.

“Uh…soon. Some final checks to do but we should be back up to full function.”

“Good. I’m going to need it.”

Oscar paused again, using the silence to properly scrutinize his crewmate. She looked, tired. Small in a way that she hadn’t been in years. He didn’t like it one bit.

“Why are we going to need it?”

Kay fixed Oscar with a look that chilled him to the bone. “Not we, me. You’re not coming with me today.”

The two of them stared at one another, each daring the other to break the silence first. It was Oscar who finally caved, asking the first from a long list of questions rattling around in his skull.

“What are you talking about Kay?”

Heaving a quiet sigh, his shipmate rose from her seat and began to pace the room, her gaze dancing around at everything except him.

“I’m going out past the red line.”

“…what?” Oscar managed.

“You heard me.”

“No, I don’t think I did, because I’m damn sure you’d never say something that stupid!”

“Should get your ears checked then,” Kay said.

“Don’t be smart with me!”

Silence returned, Kay refusing to meet Oscar’s eyes, even as his glare bored into her. He tried to maintain his anger, but it quickly softened into concern, his voice losing its edge in kind.

“Talk to me Kay. Whatever is going on, we’ll deal with it.”

She laughed at his words. Short barks that dripped with bitterness and condescension. Only his long history with Kay held Oscar back from snapping at her.

“Will we Oscar? The pit we’re in, are we really going to fix it the way we’re going?”

“So this is about money then?”

Kay finally turned back to face him, eyes burning with rage. “Of course it’s about money! What the hell else would it be about?!”

“Kay I-” 

“All of this has been about money! Money I owe, money I need, money that I do! Not! Have!” She gestured around at the ship. “You think I like working in this rusting death trap? That I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else?!”

She paused to catch her breath. The fire was gone from her eyes when she looked back up, replaced by something small and hurt.

“We can’t keep this up Oscar,” she whispered. “It’s going to kill one of us if we don’t do something…”

Oscar said nothing to this at first, his face becoming a stony mask that Kay had no hope of reading. When he finally spoke, his words were tight and measured with control.

“This is what killed him Kay.”

Neither one of them saw the slap coming until after it had already happened. Not the hardest strike in the world but enough to snap Oscar’s head to the side, a red mark on his cheek. Kay stood opposite him with her hand raised, the realization of what she had just done hitting her like a hammer.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t-”  

The words died in her throat as Oscar turned his head to fix her with a look that broke her heart like glass. She’d screwed up. Badly.   

Without a word Oscar turned his back on her and left the room. Every instinct within Kay screamed at her to go after him, to apologize, to do something, anything to stop him. Instead Kay remained rooted to the spot, listening as the last of Oscar’s footfalls faded into silence.

*

King barely glanced up from his work as Kay entered his office. He continued to scribble at his ledger, trying to wrangle an annoying zero into place as he waited for her to deliver the inevitable witticism. When Kay instead remained silent, King looked up to find the young woman standing a respectful distance back from his desk. She was stooped forward, one arm hugging an elbow as she patiently waited for him to acknowledge her presence. The look did not suit her in the slightest.

“Yes?” King asked, putting down his pen.

“Just registering my route,” Kay said. “Didn’t want to interrupt.”

He sat up at little straighter at these words and just how un-Kay like they were. In fact, the young woman standing before him bore little resemblance to the impish brat whose daily visits he’d come to look forward to these last few years. He could not say he liked the change.

“Okay. Where you headed?”

Kay rattled off the coordinates. Like always, King entered them into his ledger and had already picked up a map marker before doing a double take on the numbers. They were notably different, both from Pacific’s previous trips and from every other entry in the book. Far from the busy spots, the lucky spots, the long shots and very, very far from Bright Hope.

None of that was technically against the rules but King couldn’t help but feel a sliver of doubt creep into his gut. Glancing up at her, he found Kay waiting expectantly, her face a mask against any emotion. She looked tired. No, she looked exhausted in more than just a lack of sleep. The sliver grew colder.

“Is, everything alright?” King asked, emphasizing the syllables.

“Fine,” Kay replied. When King still didn’t react, she continued. “Just a little tired, still not a hundred percent from the accident. But I’m fine.

“Kay, if you-” he began, grasping for the right words. Kay cut him off before he could find them.

“I’m fine King,” she said, before adding. “Am I good?”

King debated not letting her have the spot. He had no legal recourse to do so, or any reason to think that he should try. He briefly considered doing it anyway but concluded it would do little good. All she’d have to do was lie and go there anyway. Heaving a defeated sigh, King approached the wall and fixed the marker to the map.

“Much obliged,” Kay said.

King could only nod as the girl turned to leave. She was almost gone when the Harbourmaster called after her.

“Be careful out there, Kay.”

They were spontaneous words, stumbled over and strung together unformed. Kay stopped at the door, her hand on the knob and keeping her back to King. He wondered if she would simply leave without another word but then she turned to look back at him with the faintest ghost of a smile dancing on her lips.

“Thanks, your majesty.”

She left without another word, leaving King alone to contemplate the cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.

*

“Control, this is Pacific, requesting cast off.”

Sitting in the pilothouse, Kay lowered the receiver from her mouth as she waited for a response. It didn’t take long for one to come through the static.

“You sure?” Control asked. “Could just tip the whole thing over the side. You know, save you the trouble.”

Kay drew in a long breath, letting it out as something between a whimper and a sigh. After taking the time to steady herself Kay brought the mic back up to her lips.

“Just get me down there, Control,” she paused before adding. “Please.”

The line stayed quiet for much longer this time around, long enough to make Kay wonder if she’d lost connection. When Control finally came back, his tone was much less jovial.

“Uh…right. Casting you off now. Hang on.”

The signal cut out and soon after one of the dock cranes begin to crawl along the wall towards the Pacific. When it made it about halfway, Kay punched the start-up into the controls, a shudder passing through the hull as engines roared to life below. They rumbled for several seconds, engaging the drive system as normal and catching Kay completely off guard when one of them sputtered and died without warning.

Cursing through her teeth, Kay throttled everything back before taking up the mic again. “Hold Control, got a stall.”

“Roger, holding cast off.”

Pushing away from the helm, Kay left the pilothouse and crossed the deck to descend below. Noises echoed throughout the cramped space, growing louder as she entered the engine room. The space had been reassembled since the last time she’d seen it, the same shape as before just with some shinier bits sticking out from one of the cylinders.

It was from that section that the loudest noises came. Some she recognized as the old grumblings of the Pacific, others she guessed were simply the new engine getting to grips with the ship’s various quirks. A few, the ones that sounded the least healthy, she did not recognize in the slightest.

Approaching the engine block, Kay manually cut the power and gave it a moment before attempting a restart. It spun and coughed, briefly catching before descending back into the same cacophony of sounds that had summoned her here. She tried again, this time getting even worse results as the engine had barely started up before stalling out.

Steadying herself with a long breath, Kay let the machine rest a moment before going for a third try. It held for longer than the previous two, coughing and sputtering as it held on. Kay had just gotten her hopes up that it had finally taken when, as if to mock her, it once again sputtered and died. 

Kay kicked one of the support struts in frustration, hard enough to make her cry out in pain. Why was this ship so old? Why couldn’t it just work with her, just this one time? This one time, when she needed it to the most, why couldn’t the universe just give her a break?

Lost in her anger, Kay didn’t notice the other person in the room until their hand reached forward to press the starter. The engine obediently sprang to life, quickly beginning to stall once again. Before it could, a second hand appeared and struck a seemingly random spot on the casing with a closed fist. Somehow, that did the trick and the engine settled into a contented purr, running as intended.

“Its touchy,” the figure said. “Needs a kick sometimes.”

Kay turned to face them, completely un-surprised to find it was Oscar. No one else could have so effortlessly brought a machine to life. He looked at her with a stern expression, calm but far from neutral. Kay opened her mouth to say something but he cut her off.

“Here’s how this is going to work,” he said pointing first at her, then at himself. “It’s your ship, but my rules. No questions, no arguments. Don’t care what you think you can pull off, if I say we turn around, we turn around.”

Kay said nothing, mutely nodding along with his words as he reached out a hand towards her, offering a handshake.

“Deal?” he asked.

Kay ignored the hand and instead launched herself forwards to wrap the man in a tight hug. She felt him jump at the sudden contact, trying to step away but held in the place by her grip. She held on for only a moment before releasing him and stepping back. After wiping her eyes clear, she looked up into his stunned face and flashed the first genuine smile she’d worn all day.

“Deal,” she said.

*

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