17.

For an eternity, everything stopped.

The noise, the chaos, even the Sea itself faded away. For what may as well have been forever, there was nothing in all the world save her and everything she had lost.

The Atlantic looked just as she remembered it. A long, sleek wedge of metal, bulging slightly at the sides where its hold pushed out from the center. Eight legs spread equally along both sides, triple jointed to keep her steady as a heartbeat and powerful enough to carry a ship twice her size. Even its name was still there, white letters standing bold and proud along the bow, visible even through the caked-on layers of filth.

Even still, the old girl had not weathered her time at Sea without injury. Long gashes ran along her sides like claw marks, the jagged edges shot through with sickly veins of rust and decay. None of the legs sat squarely, reduced to bent metal and rickety joints, two of them having been snapped off entirely. Those had been replaced by irregular lengths of metal, a crude imitation held in place only by the same living masses of trash that gave the construct life. The deck had suffered the worst of it, heaped with layers of trash so thick that they buried the original structures. The pilothouse, the crane, the radio mast, all were lost beneath a formless lump of writhing trash.

Each of these details was thrown uncaring to the swirling vortex of thoughts and emotions that raged in Kay’s mind. Relief was there, mostly at her continued survival, as was confusion at the same. Anger and fear sat alongside, joined in no small part by wonder at this strange new reality. Mostly there was a simple sense of imbalance, of floating free in high chaos where she had not the slightest clue what was real anymore.

All of this was pushed aside as the endless moment inevitably passed. The ship rattled as four new monsters arose from the Sea, surrounding them one every side. As one they came for the Pacific, appendages reaching out with hungry anticipation.

The Atlantic sprang into action before they could even close the distance. With the lithe, directed motions, the former dredger impaled the smaller with its legs, slaying it with quick, brutal efficiency. The Atlantic barely paused to toss the carcass aside before turning to its next opponent.

The second monster turned to face the Atlantic but was too slow to react. In a flash it had been felled, limbs torn from its body, leaving the rest to fall into the Sea, de-fanged and irreverent.

The remaining two turned to face the Atlantic, forgetting the smaller Pacific in the face of a more pressing threat. Both charged in unison, seeking to overwhelm the larger opponent by working together. The Atlantic met their charge, allowing both to slam into it head on, their combined weight enough to push the larger ship back in a spray of loose trash.

It did them little good. Even with their combined weight, the two creatures simply could not overcome the sheer size of their opponent and quickly ground to a halt. The Atlantic wasted no time in retaliating, throwing both its attackers back with a single, mighty push.

One fell before it could even recover, swiftly impaled by several quick, precise strikes that nearly rent it in two. The other did better, using its companion’s end as an opening to swing its club like fists at the Atlantic. Several of them connected, each a solid blow that rang like gonging church bells as they pummeled the Atlantic’s side.

A small victory, and the only one the smaller monster could enjoy. Before its opponent could strike again, the debris atop the Atlantic’s deck came alive, shifting and receding until the crane was once again visible. The crane in turn began to spin, unspooling its cable to swing in a wide arc, the tip coated in a jagged mass of metal like a medieval flail.

The weapons smashed brutally into the smaller monster’s side, the impact crumpling its mantle like paper and stopping the creature dead in its track. The Atlantic gave it no time to recover and swing the cable again, landing a second blow just below the first. Battered and dazed, the smaller monster could do nothing as the Atlantic moved in for the kill.

It was not a long fight. The smaller was barely able to land a grazing blow, glancing harmlessly off the larger vessel’s hull. The Atlantic swung its flail in reply, the spiked head tearing the entire raking down the monster’s side, crippling it in a stroke. Beaten and battered, it could do nothing as the Atlantic moved in to begin tearing the monster apart.  

Kay covered her head as some of the debris flew over the Pacific, landing with a clatter in the Sea behind her.The noise swiftly spurred Kay into action, sending her scurrying across the deck towards the pilothouse. Sudden surprise allies or no, they were still very much outclassed here. More than past time they were somewhere else.

“You alright?!” Oscar shouted as she passed the shattered door.

“Hell if I know!” Kay said. “It’s getting weird out there!”

As if to emphasize the point, another chunk of debris crashed down somewhere nearby. Oscar started at the noise, pulling his attention towards the battle. The Atlantic stood victorious, tossing aside the last of its opponent as it turned to fall back in step with the Pacific. Kay watched as the same whirlwind of thoughts that had consumed her own mind spread across Oscar’s face.

“Is that…?”

“Yes,” Kay said, settling behind the helm controls.

“Why is it-

“I don’t know.”

“But, how…?”

Kay grabbed her shipmate by the jaw, forcing him to look her in the eye before she answered.

“I don’t know Oscar, to any of it.”

She had exactly zero confidence in the answer, but it seemed to do the job. Between blinks, Oscar’s wild eyes steadied as he took a deep breath to fill his chest. By the time he’d emptied it, he was himself again.

“Right…right, what’s the plan?”

“Same plan,” She gestured out the window. “That thing seems to be on our side, for right now at least. I say we take advantage while we can.

Oscar nodded. “Works for me.” He briefly glanced at the engine panel, all the lights either red or dead. “I should get below. See what kind of mess we’re dealing with.”

Kay nodded her agreement back, much as she hated the idea of splitting up. She gave him a quick, affectionate punch in the shoulder.

“Be careful old man.”

“You too you little brat.”

*

The trip back was strange, to say the least.

It was difficult for Kay to fathom this was still the same day. She’d woken up this morning under the spectre of life destroying debt and now that fact seemed almost petty. Money woes barely registered in the face of all the impossible things she had seen in the last few hours.

The Pacific moved slowly, the old girl broken and mangled such that it could only just manage half speed. A painfully slow pace under normal circumstances, made even worse by the eternal storm that continued to rage all around them. Uncountable, endless battles of titan’s tearing one another apart in the endless battle for dominance.

By comparison, the Sea around the Pacific sat almost serene, barely a ripple breaching their calm little bubble amidst the chaos. A surreal experience, only possible thanks to the unexpected efforts of the Atlantic.

Whenever a monster drifted too close, either by accident or with intent, the Atlantic would move to attack, its speed matched only by its brutality.

Most would choose to fight, attacking alone or in small groups, hoping to snatch away the Pacific for themselves. Though a few had managed to land a hit, none had yet emerged victorious. All had fallen to the Atlantic’s fury, their mangled remains left to the tender mercies.

Some, however, reacted very differently and backed away, changing course or diving back into the Sea. Did they realize they were outclassed? Have no desire to fight for the pithy morsel that was the Pacific?

Even stranger were those rare few cases where an attacker would attempt to retreat. Twice Kay had observed it happening, the Atlantic managing to wound but not kill, the victim taking their chance to run. Kay would have expected the Atlantic to give chase, its fleeing opponents easy prey for one of its size.

And yet, the former dredging vessel never pursued. Always it would let such opponents go, choosing instead to remain close to the Pacific’s side. Always it kept pace and space, giving the smaller vessel plenty of leeway to maneuver. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the Atlantic was escorting them.

The implications spun through Kay’s mind like a hurricane. What the hell was this thing? It was obviously intelligent to some degree, enough to be taking clear, motivated actions.

But then, why had it attacked the Pacific? And why had it then suddenly stopped and begun defending them instead? Had it not recognized the ship maybe? Could an animate ghost ship even recognize things? Could it even see? Just what the hell even was this thing?

Questions. So many questions to which Kay had not even a whisper of an answer.

Except, that wasn’t entirely true. There was one answer that she kept coming back to. An insane, illogical, fairy tale of an answer that could not possibly be true.

Still she could not help but wonder. Was that a person moving in the pilothouse, or just a shadow playing tricks? Was he in there somewhere? Still present? Still alive? More questions for which Kay held even fewer answers.

But there might be a way she could get them.

Kay’s gaze danced over the radio, constantly looking away only to inevitably return seconds later. She still remembered the frequencies, could still recite the callsigns like she’d used them just yesterday. She could do it all off by heart, blindfolded, in her sleep if she had to.

But did she really want to know?

The smart choice would be to never touch that button, to put the thought from her head and focus on getting out of this. On every conceivable level she knew it was better to just leave it lie. If she never knew, then she could still pretend. That would be easier.

Of course, she had never been good at taking the easy way.

Static crackled in Kay’s ear as she switched on the receiver. Her hands shook as she fiddled with the dials, making it difficult to land on the right channel. She had almost convinced herself to give up trying when the noise suddenly settled, and Kay found herself sitting with an open link.

A thousand conflicting thoughts rattled around in her skull, each convincing and dissuading her in rapid succession. In the end, she took a deep breath of stale, stinking air and pressed spoke.

“Atlantic, this Pacific. Do you copy? Over.”

Kay waited, listening to the quiet drone of background static for any change. She heard none.

“Repeat, Atlantic this is Pacific. Do you copy? Over.”

At first only the same drone of static came back but slowly, something else emerged. Clicks and pops, a warble of stronger static. And something else. Something nearly imperceptible underneath everything else trying to break through.

“…dad? Dad is that you?”

The breaks in the static persisted and Kay pressed a hand to her ear, listening intently. A spike finally broke the snow, just for an instant but long enough for Kay to hear. A phantom sound, growing louder and clearer. A sound became a syllable, on the very cusp of becoming a word. Kay leaned closer and listened. Just a little more, just a little more…

“-there!?”

Kay nearly leapt to the ceiling as the voice rang in her ear. For the briefest of seconds, she was a kid again, hearing a voice both familiar and comforting. It was a strange, elating feeling.

Then the second passed and her rational mind returned, for whatever that was worth. She realized that though it was a man’s voice, though it was a familiar voice, it wasn’t his. Even a cursory listen made that glaring obvious.

“Kay are you there!?”

“Yeah,” Kay said through a shaking breath. “Yeah I’m here.”

“There you are!” came Oscar’s voice, his voice loud and clear. “Been trying to raise you for five minutes! Why are you off the intercom?”

“Sorry just-” Kay struggled for an answer that didn’t sound insane. “Just checking something. What wrong?”

“What isn’t wrong, it’s a mess down here! How much further!?”

Kay flicked her eyes over to consult their maps, those that were still legible.

“I think we’re almost back to the line. Can we make it?”

Before Oscar could answer, he was cut off by a loud banging sound, followed by a string of his very inventive cursing.

“Nothing fancy and for the love of god, don’t go any faster!”

He did not at all sound confident but if anyone could pull off a mechanical miracle, it was Oscar. Kay still backed off the throttle a notch or two. No need to risk it.

As she turned her attention back to the Sea, Kay began to wonder if they might just make it out of this after all. The Sea had begun to settle, churn weakening, swells shrinking, the gloom growing thinner by the second. They weren’t in the clear yet, Kay could still see monsters moving about in the gloom, but they no longer approached near enough to attack. Only the Atlantic was clearly visible, keeping pace off their port bow.

For one brief, blissful moment, Kay allowed herself to believe they had made it. That was when, just to prove the universe had a perverse sense of humor, that a shadow rose from the Sea.

*

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