16.

Kay had never really believed she would die at Sea. She’d known it was a possibility, a likely one at that. The Sea had so many ways to kill even the wariest dredger and Kay had plenty of experience with most of them.

And yet, somehow, the idea had never taken root in her mind as real. It had always been an intellectual exercise, a statistical portrait imitating life without really representing it. So many times, Kay had gone out to Sea and returned with nothing worse than a bad stink. That was her job after all, and sheer repetition had dulled the threat down until it had become the most dangerous thing of all.

Normal. Going out to Sea had become normal. Routine. Just another day at the office in all its annoyances. Every day just like the one that came before and the one that came after. It was all, just, normal.

Fitting then that it was the distinctly abnormal that had finally gotten her. Kay had been ready for churn and swell, prepared for debris and even braced for the simple crushing disappointment of failure.

She had not been ready for monsters.

The creatures of living trash pressed their attack from all sides, even as it became clear they had won. More and more emerged from the depths, reaching out with all manner of appendages to grab at the Pacific. Some, it seemed, were content to simply hold fast and wait, confident that they would have their reward in due course.

Others were much more active in their efforts, ripping and tearing at whatever they could reach, eager to claim their prize immediately. Both would have what they wanted soon enough.

A shudder rolled the ship as a fresh horror emerged from the Sea. Two spider-like legs burst through the surface, rising high above. They gave Kay the strangest sense of recognition. Something beneath the rust and grime felt so familiar…

She had no time to dwell on that as both legs began their attack. One shot wide, barely scraping the hull as it skipped off into the Sea. The other made firm contact with the deck, wood splintered and metal creaking as the limb sunk deep into the hull. The sudden weight pitched the entire ship violently to one side, tilting the already floundering vessel further.

The shift caught Kay completely off guard, throwing her to the floor in a heap. Before she could recover, she felt herself begin sliding down the tilted floor, straight towards the open maw of the broken windows.

Kay clawed at the floor, tearing at her fingernails in a desperate attempt to catch herself. She failed to find one before she hit the edge, making one last useless effort to brace against the frame but she was moving too fast. Kay felt an instant of genuine horror.

Then she fell.

There was no stretching of time, no moment of reflective purgatory between cause and effect. Just a sudden rush of motion and flailing limbs, her hands seeking solid ground that was no longer there. Kay retained enough of herself to stay upright, keeping herself from tumbling end over end, but that was all. There was nothing she could do to save herself from the rapidly approaching Sea.

It was Oscar that once again came to her rescue. He appeared from nowhere to grab her hand in both his own, halt her fall with a sickening lurch. Kay looked up to find her shipmate with his torso braced against the window frame, his face contorted in effort of holding her up. His grip was solid, but it wasn’t enough to save them. Their combined weight strained the limits of the frame. Kay could already see Oscar beginning to slip.

Oscar could feel it too, his worry evident even through his strained expression. He quickly scanned their surroundings, eyes darting back and forth until they settled on something off to one side. Following his gaze, Kay found a section of the deck jutting out nearby, bent and broken but at the perfect angle to stand on.

With a silent nod Kay, signaled her understanding and braced herself as Oscar began to swing her like a pendulum to build momentum. He released her on the third swing, almost taking Kay by surprise as she found herself in free fall once again.

She hit the outcropping with a painful thud, nearly knocking the wind out of her. She scrambled frantically over the surface with both hands, searching for a grip even as sharp edges dug mercilessly into her palms. She nearly slid off all over again until her hands finally found something solid and she snatched at it like the most precious thing she’d ever possessed.

Kay had no time to rest, already feeling her arms growing weak from injuries and effort. She threw everything she had into pulling herself to safety, fighting both the uneven surface and constant shifting of the ship. Her rebreather wasn’t helping matters either, a broken seal making the faceplate fog up and allowing the outside stench to creep inside. With both hands occupied, she had no way to fix it and so could only suffer through it.

Still Kay fought on, gritting her teeth, driven by adrenaline and blind desperation. With what strength she had left Kay pulled, gaining inch by inch as her arms burned.

She’d just managed to find a foothold when another thin leg emerged from the Sea. Through her bleary vision Kay saw the jagged tip hanging in the air, its barbed surface like a poised predator waiting to strike. Almost too late, she realized it was set to strike squarely at her.

Kay had no time to think, barely had time to react, operating on pure instinct to let go with one hand. She felt a sickening plummet in her stomach as she fell, her arm screaming in pain as it suddenly took her full weight. Only by sheer willpower did she hold fast, steeling herself in the same instant that the leg fell.

It missed her by a hair’s breadth, so close that Kay suspected she had just burned through whatever luck she had left. By some impossible quirk of angles and geometry, the metal limb merely grazed her like a sharp gust of cold wind. Kay’s breath hitched as she watched it go, her heart hammering at her ribs as it hit her just how close she had come to death.

The monster seemed oblivious to the minor miracle, uncaring of its human victims. Sparks and shrapnel showered Kay as its leg shifted inside the hull, cutting deeper into the hull with every motion. More legs burst forth, four in total now, each reaching out to strike from a different direction.

Unable to do anything else, Kay focused on pulling herself up onto the marginal safety of the ledge. For a span of heartbeats Kay simply caught her breath, enjoying the victory of solid ground under her feet. Small distractions to avoid dwelling on the simple cold reality of the situation.

They were doomed.

The Pacific had barely managed to throw off one of these things, and it had nearly been crippled doing it. Looking around, Kay counted at least four monsters working to sink them, not including the newcomer. They couldn’t fight that. Even if by some miracle they managed to slip away, more would come along to grab them eventually.

They were a lightweight fighter wading through the heavyweight championship. It was only a matter of time before something took them down.

Strangely, Kay didn’t feel sad about that, not exactly. It was almost freeing in a way. No one could say she hadn’t done her best, but the truth was they had been outmatched from the beginning. You simply couldn’t beat a storm by shouting at it. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about her debts anymore.

The only real sorrow she felt was for Oscar. He deserved so much better than to be dragged down by her fool’s errand. If she could have just one wish, it would be to spare him this fate. But nature, uncaring as it was, didn’t work in exceptions or half measures. The Sea had so many ways to kill you, that just the cold reality of things.

Kay watched as the thin legs continued to tear the Pacific apart. It struck her again just how familiar they looked. Something about the way they moved, how the joints bent. She knew them but could not for the life of her remember why.

She received her answer as the legs pulled back from the Pacific, rearing up its legs for one last attack. It rose from the Sea in full, trash sluicing off its body to reveal what lay at its center.

It was a dredging vessel. A large one. Nearly twice the size of the Pacific with eight legs compared to their measly four. The kind of ship that once would have haunted a berth at Bright Hope, now reduced to playing the same game as everything else out here. A darkly ironic choice for the Pacific’s ultimate end. She wondered if it could even see her. Or if it even cared.

Kay rose to her feet and looked the corrupted dredger in the eye. Hopeless as it was, uncaring as it was, she refused to look away from her end. She hoped that it would at least be quick.

“Well come on!” Kay shouted. “Get it over with!”

The creature obliged. All four legs fall on her in a single stroke, a death blow aimed squarely at the Pacific. She braced herself, not ready but resigned to the inevitable. It therefore came as quite a surprise when the legs didn’t strike the ship.

Instead they lashed out at the other monsters, skewering them with a grim efficiency of mass and metal. They ripped and tore and smashed with the same power they had been using to attack the Pacific not moments before. In stunned silence, Kay watched as the dredging monster, for lack of a better term, rescued them.

With a vicious array of stabs and swipes, it quickly cleared the hull of its fellows. Most of them went without a fight, bowing to a larger opponent and vanishing back into depths to wait.

Only the largest, the one that had fallen across the Pacific’s deck, put up a real fight. Pulling its disparate pieces back together, the monster reared back and struck like a viper. Its attacks pushed the dredging vessel back several steps, knocking more debris from its hull in the process. Impressive but superficial, the viper lacking the mass to do real damage.

Gaining the initiative, the dredger struck back with a blazing flurry of blow, mulching its opponent with pneumatic insistence. The viper tried to respond in kind, lashing out with tendrils and clumps of its own body, but it did little good. The battle was already won, and it did not take long for the viper to fall still in the dredger’s grip.

“The hell…?” Kay said aloud.

The monster gave no answer. It tossed the limp corpse of its opponent aside, not even bothering to consume it and instead advanced towards the Pacific. For a moment, Kay feared it had changed its mind, but the creature instead braced itself against their floundering hull. Slowly, almost gently, the dredger began to push them back into proper position. In short order the Pacific had settled back onto their own legs, the gyros somehow still intact to keep them level.

Once they were safe, the dredging monster stood back, settling in next to the Pacific as if it were any other ship. It made no other move, seemingly content to sit there and wait.

Kay had absolutely no idea what to make of any of this. She could only stare in complete bewilderment. Not just at the creature had done, but because Kay finally realized why it had felt so familiar. She knew the ship this had been. Even after so long, she knew.

Atlantic.

*

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