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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15.

Kay had never believed in monsters. She’d never had the time nor patience for the old stink’s tales of “unknowable horrors” or “terrible beasts”, all of which were conveniently light on the details. Usually she’d just roll her eyes and walk away. She had plenty of real problems to deal with, thank you very much, and had neither the time nor energy to devote to bad stories. There were, after all, no such thing as monsters.

They rose from the Sea all around the Pacific. Things, monsters, formed from the very trash that churned beneath them. Great masses of plastic, glass, compost, splintered wood and a thousand other waste things held together in a dark, tar like slurry. It was difficult for Kay to hold any one of them in her gaze for long as they were constantly changing shape, old details swallowed up and new ones emerging to replace them.

The only thing that truly set them apart from one another was the mantle of detritus worn by each. Formed from larger pieces of trash, from things strong and sturdy enough to survive. They adorned each mass, a mold to hold the ever-changing mass in place. If only for a little while.

Some wore the remnants of broken buildings, all jagged edges and bristling with broken girders. Others garbed themselves in intricate coats of machinery, masses of metal and plastic. Kay saw one armored like a medieval knight in the crushed remnants of cars and what had once been their factory assembly line.

Yet more of the creatures instead wore only a single object, less adorning the monsters than encasing them. These varied wildly in scale, some no more than a pile of animate rust, while others wore the entire skeletons torn from ancient vessels of ocean, sky, and space. And not even that did no justice to the truly strange things Kay saw moving all around them.

An entire skyscraper coated in gold, emblazoned with a name now lost to history. A silo larger than any dredging vessel Kay had ever seen, merrily rolling across the surface, crushing everything in its path. Larger than life statues of people, places, and animals of all kings, meaningful once but now reduced to nothing more than ghoulish puppets.

Massive things making massive monsters in turn.

And somehow that was not the end of it. In the distance, through the gloom, Kay could see the shadows of yet more things rising from the depths. They were far more fluid than the rest, their dark, blank shapes a canvas for Kay’s imagination to paint all manner of details. Kin to their smaller cousins but on an entirely different scale.

Blink. There was a pointed spire, its sharp tip towering so high it vanished into the gloom above.

Blink. There now was a thing of many flailing tendrils, tipped in pincers and fists and the writhing fingers of yet more tendrils.

Blink. There again, something new. A formless mass of truly gigantic proportion, stretching so far in every direction it looked like a patch of night sitting on the horizon.

Blink. And now there was nothing there at all but a vanishing shadow, swallowed back into the depths like it had never been at all.

All this Kay observed in detracted reverie, time seeming to stand still as they were somehow spared the chaos. That mercy came to a lurching end as suddenly the Sea beneath them bulged up, throwing the entire ship to one side. Kay could only yelp and hold on, bracing herself as she was thrown headlong into this reality. Ready or not.

Another monster appeared out of the depths, this one a bulbous amalgamation of curved metal plates standing on four trunk-like legs. It began to walk away with the heavy grace of a hurricane, barely registering the Pacific’s presence as it moved.

The same could not be said of the reverse. Waves, literal waves of trash battered their sides as Kay desperately fought to keep the ship level. Engines screamed at the effort, Kay having to call upon every shred of her experience to guide the ship safely down the side of the swell.

Still it was a near thing. Twice Kay was certain they were going over as large bits of debris struck, rattling the hull anew. By either luck or panicked mastery, she managed to recover both times, hands gripped so tightly on the controls her fingers had gone numb.

Only once did she risk a glance down, wild eyes searching for any sign of Oscar. She spotted him on deck, crouched low to keep balance and holding on for dear life to whatever he could. Every time another wave broke over them, he was forced to let go to dodge the larger pieces of trash. Each would be more than able to send him tumbling overboard.

Thus far he’d managed to avoid such a fate, but it was a dangerous game he played. One slip up and it would mean the end for him.

“Hold on tight old man,” Kay muttered to herself. “I really stepped in it this time.”

Kay had no more time to spare for him. All her focus was required for piloting as all around them, a vicious melee of truly titanic proportions raged.

Monsters collided with on another in a raging storm of violence, their mantle’s turned to weapons of war as they laid into one another. Blows of crippling force and unimaginable power, each mythical in its own right, but hardly worthy of note in this arena. A seemingly endless battle with no side or alliances that Kay could see. It was every monster for itself, striking, stabbing, constricting, and rending at whatever their lumbering movements could reach.

Ahead, Kay saw the animate shell of a military aircraft carrier grab hold of an old water tower in its many fist like appendages. The smaller tried to squirm away, putting up a valiant struggle but all for naught as the larger easily overpowered it, crushing the tank like tinfoil. It pulled the twitching remains towards itself, a great, hungry maw opening wide on its front. In seconds it had swallowed the morsel whole, subsuming it into the carrier’s already expansive mass. Barely a drop in the bucket. A bucket which Kay suspected was filled entirely with such drops.

It was the way of things out here, from what Kay could see. Consume what you could to grow as large as possible, that was the only way to survive. If you were smaller, you ran. If you were larger, you consumed. Fail at either and you died, simple as that.

Despite herself, Kay couldn’t help but marvel at the sight. At the wonders of a world gone by, once tall and proud, now broken and cast low onto the rubbish heap of history. Tombstones to their own past glories, fighting to cling on to whatever remained. She might have found it beautiful, even poignant, were they currently not sitting right in the middle of it.

But such was indeed where they sat, surrounded by things well beyond what the Pacific had been built to handle. Like a gnat in a hurricane, at once beneath notice and yet at the mercy of forces far beyond its control. Their only chance was to hope nothing noticed them as they quietly slipped away.

A crunch, loud and close, sounded somewhere behind and Kay suddenly found herself flying forward as the ship lurched to a stop. Recovering, she whipped her head around to look, finding the front end of a cement truck staring back. It was both the head and the crowning jewel of a monster’s mantle, the broken grill forming a wicked grin that seemed to relish the prospect of a kill. Although that may have just been Kay’s imagination.

From within the truck’s squat tank, there emerged four tendrils, each tipped with a long, jagged hook. Crude in appearance but clearly no less effective as they dug into the Pacific, slicing through the metal as if it were paper.

Acting on instinct, Kay slammed the controls forward, urging the old girl to put everything she had into fleeing. They made it only a step before there came the sickening sound of tearing metal and splintering wood. Kay had the sinking feeling it was not the sound of the monster being ripped free.

Indeed, the monster soon gave a low, rumbling growl of displeasure, sounding like an avalanche of tin cans clattering against one another. The Pacific’s engines screamed in reply, spurred on, and pushed to limits Kay hadn’t known they even possessed.

It wasn’t enough. Kay could already feel the mechanisms straining, dancing on the edge of failure even as the monster tightened its grip. The Pacific simply did not have the power to win this fight. Struggling against it was simply delaying the inevitable end of both vessel and human alike.

Part of Kay wanted to cry at that, in fear or frustration she couldn’t tell. Both emotions swiftly found themselves smothered by the sudden, unexpected appearance of a third.

Anger.

White hot anger, burning through Kay like liquid fire. Anger at the monster, anger at the Pacific, anger at herself. But most of all, Kay was angry at the universe for not just giving her a goddamn break.

Once, just once, that was all she was asking for but no. If it wasn’t crippling debt it was actual, literal, in the discarded flesh monsters. Everything was just so absurdly stacked against her that it was almost funny. She would have laughed if she hadn’t been so blindingly, irrationally angry at it all. It was the kind of state where the only options were shut down or do something utterly, bafflingly stupid.

Kay chose stupid.

With a scream louder than engines or Sea, Kay wrenched the throttle back to zero. The monster, unprepared for the change, had no time to adjust and found its prey suddenly moving towards it, pulled by its own strength. In the same moment, Kay threw the gears into reverse and slammed the throttle back to full, sending them flying back like a bullet.

“Screw you!” Kay shouted just before they hit.

The impact was terrifying. They slammed bodily into the monster, striking center mass with the combined power of both parties. Kay saw the wicked grin of its grill vanish beneath the stern, the entire hood of the truck crumpling at the impact. The windows of the pilothouse shook, sprouting long cracks that allowed the burning stench of the gloom to seep in and flood Kay’s nostrils. The legs creaked and the hull wailed like the damned, bent and battered even as Kay demanded they press on.

And yet, somehow, the gambit paid off. The monster roared in distress, violently thrown off into the Sea by the sudden attack. Kay roared back in kind, triumphant as she saw the claws lose their grip and slide free from the hull.

Kay was so focused on the monster that she didn’t notice Oscar until he grabbed her shoulder. She nearly leapt from his skin as she whipped her head around, finding a face halfway between wide grin and wild-eyed madness looking back.

“You know you’re nuts, right?!”

This time she did laugh. “Regret coming yet!?”

“Time of my life!” He shouted, taking a moment to pull a rebreather on over Kay’s head. “Now drive!”

Wasting not a second, Kay reversed what she had done and threw them back into full forward. The gears squealed like dying pigs at the shift, terrifying snaps and creaks sounding from somewhere below. Briefly, free of adrenal haze, Kay wondered if she might have gone too far and doomed them anyway.

Somehow the old girl plodded on still, despite her pained cries. She was wounded, terribly wounded, but alive and moving. If she could just hold on long enough to get them clear, they might just make it out of this alive.

The monsters had other ideas. Another burst free from the Sea, moving too quickly for Kay to react. It grabbed hold of a leg, twisting the already mangled limb like a pretzel. Kay swore at the jolted, pushing on in the slim hope they had enough power left to break free.

A second monster emerged on the opposite side, this one striking with their flank with its bulbous tendrils, finally shattering the pilothouse windows completely. Before the glass had even settled a third monster emerged directly in front of them. It reared up out of the Sea like a serpent, holding in mid-air for what seemed an eternity, giving Kay ample time to imagine what would happen when it came back down.

The real thing proved so much worse.

The creature landed bodily across the deck, an avalanche of debris pressing down on them like a shroud. It forced them low to the Sea’s surface, the weight pinning them firmly in place even as the churn took hold. The Sea truly had them this time.

The Pacific was going down.

*

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14.

The Pacific’s hull shook down to its rivets, the force of the blow throwing Kay from her chair. She struck the floor hard, her chin bouncing off the metal and leaving her lying in a daze, the salty tang of blood coating her tongue.

Through the floor, Kay felt as much as heard the impact reverberate through the hull. It rang like a bell, the echo pinging back and fort through the narrow space. A whole litany of metallic groans and shrieks sounded close behind, each one of them sounding unhealthy in the own unique way.

Still the old girl managed to somehow keep upright, the noises fading as the legs reoriented and leveled them out. Kay pushed up from the ground, biting back a pained cry as fresh pain erupted from her hip and shoulder. She didn’t have time for pain right now. Instead Kay grabbed hold of the console and wrenched herself back up to see what was happening.

Things came to her by degrees, her perception slowly spreading outwards like a fog lifting from her sight. First came the deck immediately surrounding the pilothouse, strewn with tools and cargo broken free by the impact. The crane sat off to the side, its arm askew in its frame from its recent battle with the churn. She was relieved when she saw a figure moving inside the control booth at the back. At least Oscar was still alive.

That thought was pushed aside as her vision finally reached the Sea. It had changed in the thirty seconds since she’d lost sight of it, the unnatural calm long gone as the surface roiled with chaotic motion. Trash of all shapes and sizes moved in the churn, rising and falling faster than Kay had ever seen before. Before her eyes, she watched as an old car popped up only to be swallowed straight back down again. The whole thing happened so fast that Kay might have missed it had she blinked at the wrong moment. 

More concerning though was the lack of the shadow. Whatever had struck them had been huge, nearly the size of the ship in Kay’s memory. And yet, nothing of even comparable size was visible around them.

Had it been pulled back under like the smaller object all around them? The thought was tempting but Kay knew it to be impossible. Nothing so large could have been swallowed by the Sea in such a brief span of time, not without the Pacific going down with it. But Kay could think of no other explanation. The shadow had simply appeared, struck them, and then vanished wholly and without trace. It had to have been the Sea. It had to have been.

Glancing around, Kay couldn’t shake the feeling that she was missing something. Some great truth looming over the situation, like a cat coiled up and ready to pounce on the mouse.

One thing at a time, she told herself. First survive, then deal with the terrifying reality of their situation. The latter preferably when they were back on solid ground. Tamping down the fear, Kay took up the radio where it dangled from its cable.

“Oscar? Oscar, you hear me?”

Static buzzed over the line, holding just long enough to send a fresh bolt of panic through Kay’s chest before a pained voice broke through.

“I’m here…”

Kay gave a sharp exhale of relief. “You intact?”

“Mostly…” he said, giving a pained grunt before continuing. “What the hell hit us?”    

“No idea and I’m keen to stick around and find out. Get-”

Her words were cut off as another blow rocked the ship. It hit them in the side, coming up from below and making one side of the ship bounce. Kay managed to keep her feet this time, holding onto the console with both hands as she whirled around to face their attacker.

She saw nothing at first, just the roiling surface of the Sea pushing trash past them in great swells. She was about to look away when she managed to pick out the detail the didn’t belong.

The churn, strong as it was, still pushed the trash in a single direction, perpendicular to Pacific’s hull. As Kay watched, she picked out and errant line instead flowing parallel to them in defiance of the rest. As if something were moving just beneath the surface, independent of the surrounding forces at play in the Sea. Something big.

It moved towards the stern, out of Kay’s sight, and another bang rattled through the ship. Now she was certain this was no bizarre quirk of physics and chaos. Whatever that thing was out there, it was moving against the churn and with a clear intent. She had no idea what that intent was, but something told her it didn’t have the ship’s best interests in mind. That image of a cat stalking a mouse came back, the cat now many times larger than before.

Kay had no intention of allowing them to be caught though. Instead she dove for the control panel and threw the throttle up to maximum, ignoring the rainbow of warning lights that flicked on in protest. Pressing on the controls, the Pacific grumpily clattered into gear, beginning to move forward across the Sea, quickly building momentum as the engines clawed their way up to speed.

The thing in the Sea struck again, this time directly on the stern, sending the ship forward in a sudden burst. Kay briefly felt the entire back end of the ship lift from the Sea, followed by a sickening jolt as it fell back to the surface with a crash.

Instantly the churn began to grasp at the underside of the hull as it made contact, invisible fingers digging into the steel, seeking to drag them down into the depths. It might have been their end had the Pacific’s massive bulk bounced off the surface, freeing them in an instant. For once, it seemed, physics were on their side. Kay wasn’t about to question such luck and pressed on.

The old girl creaked and moaned from the effort but thankfully began to move along at a proper clip. Rickety as she was, the Pacific was still a powerful ship and once she got going, by god could she move. All four of her legs began to whizz past outside the windows, power rumbling deep in the hull as they approached flank speed. In another few minutes they would be off and away, hopefully leaving this place behind for good.

Ahead of them, Kay spotted another wake cutting its way through the churn. It moved like lightning, in seconds closing the distance and placing itself directly in their path. In a panic, she wrenched the controls to the side, cursing and praying that she could pull off two miracles in half as many days. With agonizing slowness, the Pacific began to turn, speed reducing their turn radius to a mere fraction of itself. The wake held its course, effortlessly cutting through the churn towards them at terrifying speed. This was going to be close.

They might have made it, had the wake not broken the surface to reveal the monster beneath.

It rose from the Sea, not a shadow as before but displayed before them in all its terrible, impossible glory. It was the Sea made manifest, a misshapen mass of writhing detritus. Twin tendrils branched out from the central mass, each tipped by the rusting frame of a tractor trailer. Atop the whole thing sat the rocket Kay had been so keen to posses, angled down in crude imitation of a long, narrow head.

     The beast loomed over the Pacific for an infinite heartbeat. Kay dared not moved, paralyzed by fear and the inability to comprehend the thing that stood before them. The silence was broken as a deep, thunderous groan echoed through the air and the monster attacked anew.

The impact was the worst yet, the blow a titan’s mighty fist striking them full force in the side. Kay felt her bones quake as the armored tendril hit, the ship crying out in pain with a horrible metallic shriek from below. Kay held on with all she had, surprised when she kept her feet but dismayed when she realized why.

Rather than withdraw after its strike, the monster had kept it armored fist firmly pressed against the hull. From within the confines of the trailer there spilled a glut of trash, moving with a life all its own. It spread like molasses, flowing, twisting, and writing as it spread up the hull and spilled over onto the deck.

The Pacific halted, pinned in place even as the legs carried on their futile efforts to move them forward. More metallic shrieking rang out, forcing Kay to back off the throttle lest the legs tear themselves apart from the effort. It spared the ship but left them completely at the mercy of its attacker.

As its grip spread ever tighter, the monster began to pull the ship down into the churning mass of the Sea. The Pacific fought, Kay pushing the engines back up to full in a desperate bid to slip away. The old girl managed a few steps before the monster tightened its grip, rumbling in displeasure. It raised it free tendril high, aiming to bring it down center mass and put an end to this trouble some bit of refuse. Kay could only marvel in horror as she saw her end poised above her and ready to strike.

The crane sprang to life before it could. The arm swung around, briefly building momentum on the back-swing before sweeping around to slam into the side of the rocket. A muted thud sounded as the two made contact, the crane arm digging deep into the mass and throwing off loose trash in every direction.

The monster roared, perhaps in pain, perhaps in surprise. It did the job, whichever it was. The trash gripping the side of the ship went still, quickly falling away as normal, sane physics reasserted themselves.

The Pacific jolted forward, engines still running at full throttle and Kay cried out in triumph as she realized Oscar’s little gambit had worked. Without delay she set the off at full speed, aiming for get as far away from here as possible. She doubted they would get a miracle like this twice and she didn’t intend to waste it.

Her victory was short lived. The monster, thrown loose by the blow, stumbled around in the Sea as it tried to regain its balance. Its tendrils swung wildly in kind, throwing off more trash and coming in low to strike them. She had no time to evade, only able to watch as the tendril swept across the deck. Debris rained down on them, everything above a certain height ravaged by the twisting mass.

The crane took the worst of it. As the tallest object on deck, it had no chance. Kay watched in horror as the mass swept through it, crumpling the support struts like pipe cleaners before tearing the structure from its moorings entirely.

“OSCAR!” Kay screamed, a wave of panic washing over her.

It immediately clashed with the wave of relief as she spotted a figure leap from the midst of the mass to land on the nearby deck. Oscar rolled to slow his fall but didn’t rise, instead keeping low and covering his neck as the trash blew past above him.

Only when it had passed, taking the crane going with it, did Oscar rise and begin sprinting across the deck towards her. He had no radio but from his wild hand gestures and shouted words, she got the gist of what he was saying. It was high time for them to hightail it. An idea Kay enthusiastically agreed with.

With haste, Kay set them off as fast as she’d ever known the Pacific to move. Behind the monster roared after them, a glance over her shoulder revealing to Kay that it had turned to give chase. Its lumbering pace reminded Kay of man slogging through waist deep water. Slow. Perhaps just slow enough that the Pacific might be able to make it out. Kay could only hope.

A hope firmly dashed against the rocks as she saw dozens of shapes begin to rise from the Sea all around them.

*

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13.

Jackpot, as it turned out, didn’t do it justice.

Every time the claw was dropped into the Sea, it would emerge clutching the kind of treasures that old dredger told stories about. Metals, plastics, glass, machinery of every shape and size. Undamaged computer components with the kind of precision engineering that would cost a fortune to build from scratch. The had found steel beams, sheets of hardened glass, bricks of industrial plastic polymer, all in pristine condition and in quantities rivaled only by supply yards.

And that didn’t even get into the more exotic specimens they’d managed to dredge up. A dishwasher that had chirped a happy little tune at them when they turned it on. A washing machine with a perfectly good load of clean clothes still inside. Toys and collectable figurines still sealed inside their packaging. Light-bulbs that somehow hadn’t broken, furniture that still held its upholstery and on and on and on it went. Some things they found Kay didn’t even recognize but which Oscar assured her would be quite sought after back at Bright Hope.

Then of course they had the bulk salvage, which was just as good and ten times more numerous. Literal floods of junk plastic, scrap metal, glass and rubber filled the sorting box to the brim. There was so much that Kay had no hope of sorting it by hand, instead using a long rake to push it into rough piles. Nowhere near a clean division, but Kay found herself not caring in the slightest. A polluted sort was a miniscule annoyance in the face of what they gained in return.

Kay felt a huge grin spreading across her face as she looked over the spoils in the entirety. It was a beautiful sight for a literal pile of garbage, one that would pull in an equally literal fortune once they got it back to port. And they still had an entire afternoon to dredge up more.

Her mind swirled with the heady implications of that sentence. This haul alone would easily cover her debt payment for this month. More than cover it in fact. Some real food, a luxury purchase, maybe an honest to god day off? The possibilities were tempting, very tempting. A few more trips like this and she might be able to pay off her debt entirely…

Kay shook the thought from her head and pulled the hold door shut. There would be plenty of time to dwell on that later. Right now, there was plenty more work to be done.

Emerging up on deck, Kay moved over to join Oscar on the crane. Not even his grumpy expression could dampen Kay’s smile.

“Well?” He asked as Kay approached.

“We’re over half,” she replied. “And everything looks stable.”

Oscar nodded, his eyes never leaving the Sea. It had changed very little since they had arrived, its surface roiling from swell and churn like a slow-motion landslide. The gloom remained thick on all sides, blurring everything more than a couple hundred feet out.

“What wrong?” Kay asked.

He turned to look at her, his eyes turning serious. “We’ve been out here too long.”

Kay raised an eyebrow at him, bemused. She’d never pegged her shipmate as the superstitious type.

“What, you afraid of Sea monsters?”

“Veto.”

Kay started at the word like a physical blow. “Seriously.”

“You agreed and I’m calling it,” Oscar pressed. “Frankly, I should have used it back at the line.”

“Oscar…” Kay made grasping gestures at the air. “There’s so much more to get. Just a little longer and-”

“You going back on the deal?”

Kay growled, resisting the urge to stamp her foot like a child. It was so tempting to say yes. It wasn’t like he could go anywhere and the more they dredged up here, the more they would make back at port. It would help them so, so much if she just said yes. All she had to do was put her foot down and say yes.

But then, there likely wouldn’t be a “they” anymore if she did. Oscar was not a man to make idle promises and she knew that if she broke this one, it would be the end of their partnership. Quite probably the end of their friendship. There were few worse things that she could imagine.

“No,” she said at last.  “My ship, your rules, right?”

Oscar nodded, relief flooding his face.

“Thank you.”

Further conversation was interrupted by the ship rattling as something large struck them. Kay grabbed hold of the crane struts, holding on for dear life as the gyros whined and fought to keep the ship stable. They managed it, if only just, and as soon as they stopped shaking sprinted to the railing to see what had hit them.

It wasn’t difficult to spot. The object was so massive that it easily fought off the churn to glide along the surface like a log. Its long cylindrical body covered was covered in layered plating and exposed piping. She had no idea what it was until the churn rolled it to one side and revealed a logo along the side. Kay gasped as she read the letters.

NASA.

It was a rocket. Actual space age technology from a time that Kay had only ever read about in history books. Space exploration had fallen out of style years ago in favor of ore earthbound problems. As such, it had been a generation since anyone had even built something like this, let alone launched it.

Once upon a time, Kay might have paused to consider the tragedy of that. Presently she was far more occupied with salivating over such a find. Even just the parts and materials would turn a massive profit, more if it still had any fuel in its tanks. If such were the case, this single piece of salvage could be worth a quarter of their haul all on its own. A treasure among treasures floating by, ripe for the taking.  

And Kay couldn’t so much as touch it. Not if she wanted to keep her closest and oldest friend. Smart Kay knew the right answer. Smart Kay also had to physically press her lips together to keep Stupid Kay from screaming. She succeeded in that but couldn’t do anything about the downright pathetic whimper that escaped instead. That was so much free money just floating away.

She glanced over at Oscar, hoping he hadn’t heard her. No such luck as it turned out, her shipmate fixing her with a look of utter exasperation so strong that she could see it through his rebreather.

“We uh, we don’t have to-”

“Go get us underway, I’ll stay in the crane and grab it.”

Kay’s face split into a smile at the words. “I ever mention you’re the best?”

“A time or two. Now get, before I change my mind.”

With a spring in her step, Kay crossed the deck to enter the pilothouse and settled back at the helm. Switching everything back to manual control, she watched through the window as Oscar maneuvered the crane over the side. When it had settled into position, Kay gently nudged the throttle up to one quarter and they set off back to Sea.

Churn caught the legs immediately, forcing Kay to kick them into a higher gear to compensate. The Pacific immediately began to whine in protest, her old hull unused to handling so much power at once.

“Easy girl,” Kay said, patting the console. “Just a bit longer.”

The ship gave what sounded suspiciously like an annoyed grunt but continued to putter on. Kay snorted in amusement before turning back to focus on the rocket.

It had barely moved since they’d first spotted it, some quirk of the churn keeping it from shifting or sinking to any notable degree. She could only speculate how it had achieved such a feat, but it lent credence to her hope that it still carried fuel in its tanks. The thought made her giddy with anticipation.

As they moved closer, Kay backed off the throttle as much as she dared to match speed. The ship screeched at yet another change, the legs visibly sinking several feet into the Sea as they lost forward thrust. Sucking in a breath, Kay pushed the throttle back up ever so slightly, dancing just above their point that would have they sinking. It was no more than a hairsbreadth.

“That’s the best I can do,” Kay called to Oscar through the radio. “All you now.”

“Roger, hang on.”

The crane made a few last-minute adjustments, compensating for their speed and the swing of the claw. Below, the rocket barely moved, the trash flowing past as if it were a stone in a rushing river. An easy grab. Or so Kay thought right up until Oscar missed.

Kay started as she watched the claw hit the Sea, already beginning to sink in the powerful churn. The rocket sat not five feet away. How the hell had Oscar missed?

“What happened,” she called.

“Damn thing…moved, somehow.”

Kay furrowed her brow. “Moved?”

“Hard to explain.”

“Well, can you get it?”

There was a pause before Oscar answered. “Yeah, I think so, hang on.”

His tone did not match his words, but Kay had no time to inquire further as the crane re-positioned again. Dragging seconds passed, Oscar waiting for his moment to strike. Kay was so focused on it that she yelped when the claw finally fell. It quickly morphed into a cheer as it hit the rocket.

“Nice grab!” Kay called.

Oscar didn’t answer, instead beginning to reel the claw back. At the same time, Kay pushed the throttle back up to full, intending to use the burst of speed to lift them up out of the churn. For once the ship did not complain about the change, its hull remaining almost silent as they resumed a smooth stride across the surface.

It would have been a perfect maneuver if the rocket had come with them.

Everything happened too fast for Kay to react. The crane cable, already taunt from its load, snapped to its creaking limit. The Pacific tilted sharply at the sudden shift, forcing Kay to wrench back on the controls to keep them from going over. Her panicked gaze fell on the crane to discover its arm sitting at an angle that was both alarming and familiar. Instinctively Kay’s foot went for the cable release before remembering there wasn’t one in here.

Luckily, Oscar turned out to be thinking along the exact same lines and seconds later the cable detached, leaving the claw to fall away into the Sea. The rocket went with it, sinking like a stone despite having already spent so long holding the surface. Odd but Kay had other things to worry about.

“You okay?” Kay radioed.

“I’m fine,” He replied. “You?”

“Been better. Quick thinking with the cable there.”

“…that wasn’t me.”

Kay took a moment to absorb that one and failed spectacularly.

“What?” She asked, incredulous.

“I didn’t cut it,” Oscar repeated. “It snapped.”

“But, that’s industrial grade cable.”

“I know.”

Kay had nothing to say to that. Her eyes wandered to where the rocket had disappeared, noting that the surface was strangely still. In fact, looking around, all the surrounding Sea had fallen unnaturally calm. Somehow that made Kay more nervous than even the strongest churn would have.

“We should go,” Oscar said.

Kay could not agree more, and was about to say so, when a shadow suddenly rose from the Sea and struck the Pacific.

*

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12.

The Sea sat calm in the morning gloom. Unusually calm, its surface flat and near still, the churn lapping weakly against the Pacific’s legs. Even the gloom itself seemed thinner than normal, the sunlight notably brighter as it cut through the haze of red and green hanging in the sky. About as close to perfect conditions as a dredger could have hoped for.

They made good time towards their destination, the new engine pushing the old tub through obstacles that once would have been lethal hazards. A sudden shift in the churn? No problem. Larger bit of debris pushed up in her path? Easily stepped over. Normally Kay would have welcomed the reduced workload but today she found herself wishing for it back. The old engine might have struggled to walk a straight line, but at least it had given Kay something to do. This new one basically ran itself and left her sitting alone in the pilothouse with nothing to do but stew in her thoughts. It was a state she did not enjoy.

She desperately missed having Oscar sitting up her with her. On a normal day he would join her in the pilothouse, monitoring the engines remotely while he kept her company. Conversation may have been sparse but just having them there helped.

Today had not been a normal day. AS soon as they had gotten underway, Oscar had disappeared into the engine room and had not yet emerged. In two hours, they’d exchanged less than a dozen words over radio and then only those that were needed to keep the ship running.

Which was fair, Kay knew. He hadn’t exactly wanted to come along on this trip. That still did little to soften the fact that her best friend wasn’t speaking to her.

At first, she’d done her best to respect his wishes regardless. She bore the unbearable silence, doing her best to block out the incessant spiral of her thoughts. It impressed her to no end that she made it for as long as she did.

“Hey,” she said into the radio.

“Hi,” Oscar replied after a moment, his tone curt. At least he was willing to talk. That had to be worth something.

“Are uh- are there any problems?”

“That’s not funny Kay.”

She winced, instantly realizing how her words could be misinterpreted. Not the best opening line to try and heal a friendship.

“I didn’t-” she began before pulling back to try again. “I meant are there any problems with the ship?”

“Several,” he said. “Nothing we can do about them. Unless you want to turn around.”

The conversation died out again, Kay caught in a loop of mouthing words at the receiver but never actually saying anything.

“Anything else?” Oscar prodded, sounding annoyed.

Many things but Kay found she lacked the courage to say anything of the. After gasping at the receiver like a dying fish for a few seconds, she sighed and surrendered.

“No…nothing.”

“Okay then. Call me when we’ve crossed.”

The line went dead without another word, leaving Kay with nothing to do but sigh and turn her attention back to horizon.  Barely started and already she felt like she wanted to collapse into bed.

It was going to be a long day.

*

They crossed the red line almost without ceremony. Kay would never have even known they were passing over it had she not been keeping a watchful eye on her maps. Such was the only thing that stood to mark out the invisible line. The Sea suffering nothing else to stand this far out for very long.

A chill ran down Kay’s spine as they crossed, coiling her every muscle like taunt steel cable. Against her will, she felt her face screw up in a grimace, saw her knuckles going white where they gripped the controls, heard her foot tapping against the floor as it bounded with nervous energy.

She was so wound up that she nearly leapt out of her skin when a jolt ran through the ship. Not a big one but enough that Kay had to grab the sides of her console to avoid falling out of her chair. As she fought to bring her heartbeat back down to a healthy speed, Kay felt a second jolt strike from further back near the hind legs.

“Hey, you feel that down there?” Kay spoke into the radio. She immediately felt foolish for asking. Of course he’d felt that.

“Yeah,” Oscar replied. “No damage.”

“Good…uh, yeah, good, good.”

“What’d we hit?” Oscar asked.

That Kay did not know. Standing from her chair, she did a quick lap of the pilothouse, straining to catch an angle of the Sea through the windows.

“Can’t see anything,” she said. “Maybe it was a…no, wait a minute.”

Just off the, Kay caught sight of something bulging up from the churn. It was big, pushing aside the smaller trash like water as it fought to break the surface.

“Something’s in the churn, something big,” Kay said.

“Worth stopping for?”

She didn’t miss the sudden interest in his voice. He was probably hoping they’d gotten lucky and could stay this side of the line. A hope that Kay had to admit she shared.

The object finally broke the surface, bursting free of the trash like a spear. Kay felt herself taking a step back, her eyes going wide at the sight of it. Even rusted to hell and snapped off at one end, it was impossible not to recognize it as the leg of a dredging vessel.

She watched it bob on the surface for several seconds, fighting to remain afloat before the churn took hold of. It sank quickly, tipping on the side to leave the broken end sticking straight up in the air. Kay tried not to think about how much it looked like a hand reaching for help as the whole thing was dragged back into the depths.

“You still there?” Oscar asked through the radio.

Kay swallowed past the lump in her throat before answering.

“I’m here,” she said. “Just a one off, not worth stopping.”

Oscar was silent for a moment before he continued in his neutral tone.

“Okay then. What now?”

“Keep going until we find somewhere that looks promising.”

“And if we can’t find anything?”

Kay blinked, realizing she didn’t have an answer. Her whole plan was built on an assumption that the Deep Sea held the riches they so desperately needed. That would be the bitterest of ironies. To have taken all these risks, burned all these bridges and ending up with nothing to show for it. The possibility frightened her deeply. Dying might almost be preferable…

“We’ll find one,” Kay said, doing her best to sound convinced.

It was Oscar’s turn to be quiet and she wondered if he was about to play his veto card.

“Alright,” he said. “Keep me in the loop.”

Kay let out a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding.

“Will do,” she said.

The link cut out and Kay put down the receiver before reaching back for the controls. She hesitated, the same chill running up her spine as her eyes lingering on the spot the broken ship had been pulled down. Then she pushed the throttle to full and set them forward into the great unknown.

*

The Sea began to turn almost immediately.

It was the gloom the Kay noticed first. What had been a bright day quickly began to dim as the gloom grew thicker and thicker. The light began to fade, Kay’s instruments beginning to glow a pale green as the flicked over to their low light setting. When she glanced up at it, Kay found the world outside gripped in a false dusk, the sun little more than an amber smear across the clouds.

All this was but a prelude, or a warning, of things to come. The calm surface of the Sea came alive before Kay’s eyes, churn making it dance with all the chaos of roiling water. Great waves of trash began to surge and flow all around them, rising to crest then falling back down in rapid succession. They grew, pushing and crashing against one another until they formed a moving landscape that stretched out to the horizon as far as could be seen.

Kay felt as much as saw these changes. The churn had grown strong enough to grab at the Pacific with a thousand grasping hands. Every step was a notable struggle to free the legs, the engine kicking into higher gear to provide the needed power. They weren’t struggling yet, but Kay still kept her grip white knuckled on the helm controls. If nothing else, they wouldn’t be dying because she wasn’t paying attention.

“Hey, I’m hearing a lot of impacts down here,” Oscar called through the radio. “Everything alright?”

“Sea’s are getting rough up here,” Kay said. “Hang on, I’m going to try and-”

Her words ended in a sudden curse as something big burst up from the Sea before them. She didn’t have time to absorb what exactly it was, only that it was too large to push through or step over. Instead she slammed the controls to the side, the ship screaming in protest as the legs struggled to make the turn. She hoped that Oscar be able to figure out he should hold fast.

The ship turned fast but still far too slowly for Kay’s liking. Heart hammering in her chest, Kay watched as the gap between ship and obstacle shrunk, first the feet, then to inches.

For a terrifying moment she was certain they would hit. Instead, by some providence and no shortage of screeching from the Pacific, the gap began to widen again. Escaped without a scratch. And a few more grey hairs but Kay could live with that.

“What the hell was that!?” Oscar shouted through the radio.

Fighting to regain her breath, Kay looked over her shoulder to see what manner of death they had just dodged. Then she did a double take, a nervous giggle rising in her throat as the absurdity hit her full force.

“That was a ship,” she said.

“A- what?” Oscar asked.

“Easier if you just come up here and look.”

“…alright, on my way up.”

It didn’t take long for him to emerge from the hatch as he climbed into view. He wasn’t on the deck five seconds before he froze, his face pointed towards the ship where it lay behind them. Not a multi-legged dredging vessel built for the Trash Sea, but an old school ancestor built for seas of a much more liquid nature.

It was old, rusted badly and riddled with holes where the churn had crushed parts of the hull. Still it held enough of its shape to be recognized, the prow still cutting through the trash with enough power to almost give the illusion that it sailed upon water. It was so massive that the Sea was having real trouble pulling it back down. It had been built to fight raging tides and it wasn’t going to let the churn win without a fight.

For a time, Oscar just stared at the behemoth, his expression hidden behind the mask of his rebreather. Eventually he recovered and turned to join her in the pilothouse.

“That’s big,” he said.

Understatement of the century. Kay had never even heard of anything that large out here, let alone seen anything.

“Pretty big, yeah.”

Further conversation was halted by something else striking them. A brief surge of panic returned before Kay realized that it hadn’t been anything nearly so large. Together they turned to look forward in search of what had hit them.

Cresting another swell, they were granted a commanding view of the Sea beyond. From the chaotic swirl of the churn, they watched as things began to emerge from the depths. Large things, small things, singular things and multitudes alike. Everywhere she looked, Kay spotted something new. A computer the size of a filing cabinet, drifting along in a cluster of electronics.  A standing tool kit that somehow looked almost new. She saw a cascade of pristine glass bottles flowing over the crest of the wave, so numerous that the churn could not swallow them all as one.

There was so much that Kay could not have possibly taken an accurate inventory of it all. The Sea was saturated with salvage so densely that things sank before she could get a good look at them, pushed aside as newer things broke the surface all around. Even a fraction of this would be considered the find of a career and that was just what lay on the surface. They could only dream about what lay waiting for them below the surface.

As one, Oscar and Kay turned to look at one another, a wide grin spreading across Kay’s face. In due time, a matching smirk appeared on Oscar’s.

“Jackpot?” Kay asked.

“…something like that,” Oscar replied.

*

Previous‏‏‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎Home‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎Next

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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10.

After several hours spent tossing and turning, Kay finally accepted that sleep would not be joining her tonight. Rising from her bed, Kay began pacing back and forth, trying to burn off the nervous every coursing through her. A somewhat doomed effort as the cramped floor space meant she could only make it two strides in any direction, but it was better than nothing.

For two days Kay had been stuck in her apartment, technically “resting” but not feeling much rested for the trouble. Stress and nerves hounded her at every moment, both waking and those few of sleep she could manage. Brief spells of unthinking oblivion, precious and distant from one another before throwing her back out into simple, cold reality.

Said reality was, in short, that she was screwed. Not in any abstract or philosophical sense but as a provable, numerical truth. No matter how many times she went over everything, no matter how she fudged things, no matter how many corners she cut or costs she hacked to the bone, the number at the end always sat deep in the red. Kay simply did not have enough money to cover her debt.

That was a problem for a multitude of reasons. By the terms of the loan agreement, any missed payments would incur massive penalties. Bad enough on its own but made worse by another clause that retroactively added the amount to the loan, meaning it was subject to the same interest rate as the original sum had been. Draconian and blatantly unfair, it was but one of several such clauses that riddled the fine print, ensuring that her only options were “pay” or “pay more”.

Adding pressure to panic, just this morning Kay had received a curt reminder the deadline was imminent. She could see the letter from where she paced, sitting atop the piles of bookwork that littered her table. Distance blurred the words, but Kay had read them so many times that she knew them all by heart at this point.

*

Dear [insert client name],

We hope this letter finds you well. We are writing today to inform you that, as per the terms of your contract, your next scheduled debt payment is due on 06/12/2054. Please see the attached documentation for more details.

Thank you for choosing First Finance Solutions and have a pleasant day.

Sincerely,

[insert]

*

A polite threat if nothing else, albeit an impersonal one. The first of what would become many if the deadline passed with no payment rendered. The mentioned further details made that crystal clear.

Shaking the thought away, Kay abandoned her pacing and stepped into the bathroom. Turning on the shower, she stripped off her clothes and stepped under the water. Not to wash but simply to soak in the warmth and steam, hoping that it might help her relax. It worked for a time, the lukewarm water a soothing balm as it cascaded over her skin.

Then something, somewhere broke and the water turned sour as sulphur flooded into the stream. Kay gagged at the stench, her skin beginning to burn like hot needles were raking over her flesh. A badly timed yelp allowed some of the water into her mouth, instantly coating her tongue with the taste of metal. Kay flailed around in search of an escape from this impromptu gas chamber, bashing her arms against the hard plastic in search of the door. Finding it, she threw herself forwards shoulder first to batter it open and tumble out onto the bathroom floor in a heap.

For long minutes Kay lay there, blinking her eyes back into focus and trying not to vomit as she spit out the tainted water. When the world stopped spinning, Kay slowly rose to her feet and shut off the water. She could still smell the sulphur in her nose and taste metal in her mouth.

“Well screw you too,” Kay said to the shower. It’s only reply was a soft gurgle as the last of the sulphur water drained away.

Toweling off and dressing, Kay turned to leave but paused when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. An unsettling face stared back at her from the glass. Pale of skin, hollow cheeked and with beady, sunken eyes hung with bags so dark as to be pitch black. A not un-familiar visage, she’d seen it countless times before, but this one felt different. Felt, permanent. Not an expression worn but something carved deep into her features, heavy with the weight of worry and exhaustion. A week ago, she couldn’t have imagined a person looking like this continuing to function. Just a week ago.

Unbidden, Kay began to imagine what the face would look like tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Further and further she aged it, watching in her mind’s eye as time stretched away in a widening gulf. The creature opposite her aged in kind. Not rapidly, not suddenly, but bit by aggravating bit as the broken face was carved ever deeper into its features.

The thing grew thin and weathered, head drooping low as its neck lost the long battle with a lifetime of hard labour. Its eyes grew dim, hair thin, its skin becoming so colourless as to be almost translucent. Its hands grew dark with callouses, fingers bending into gnarled lumps of useless skin and bone. She watched as the creature was slowly crushed, mind, body and spirit. A life lived on auto, repeating the same thing for forgotten reasons, over and over until it finally broke and nothing but dust remained.

Kay saw this creature standing before her. This creature that had her face.

With great effort, Kay tore her eyes away from the figure, forcing her mind back the now as she left the bathroom. Her nervous energy was gone now, replaced by a heavy fatigue that was little better. Lacking the energy to pace again, Kay instead sank down onto her bed, her gaze beginning to wander about the room.

She knew the space well, intimately familiar with every detail after two days of climbing its cramped walls. The empty fridge and overladen table. The pile of dirty clothes thrown on the floor around the hamper. The dust bunnies and cobwebs beginning to visibly gather in the corners. All of it exactly as it had been the last time. Static, unchanging, her own little corner of an abandoned dream already beginning to rot away.

That last thought depressed Kay. Not the thought itself but the fact that she was no longer surprised by how easily it came to her. Wallowing had ways of making the extreme reasonable.

Her eyes continued wandering across the room, drinking in the details with muted dispassion, until she finally reached the photograph of her father. It sat unchanged like everything else, the same frame holding the same picture of the same family giving the same smiles. A perfect little snapshot suspended forever in time, always happy, blissfully unaware of what was soon to come.

Something drew Kay’s gaze to the image of her father’s face, caught eternal on the cusp of a laugh. He looked, happy. And he probably had been at the time. Flush with borrowed cash, the proud owner of a mighty new ship with which he would finally build his fortune. Things had been bad true but that was all in the past. Today marked the day where things turned around.

“So how’d that work out for you?”

Not well, as it had turned out. The Sea had taken all those hope with it when it had swallowed Bright Hope’s famously rich dredge. His glory or death gambit had fallen squarely on the latter option and without the decency to even make it quick.

Still the man hadn’t learned. He could have made that minor disaster work, could have toiled away with what he had until the debt was repaid but no. No, he needed to cook up yet another scheme, another all or nothing gambit to free himself from his own mistakes. He’d gotten it into his head to go out past the red line. By his logic, since no one went there, there’d be valuable salvage just sitting around in the churn, waiting for some enterprising soul to come pick it up.

He might have been right but that didn’t change the fact that no one went there for a very good reason. There was a reason stories persisted of things both great and terrible out there in the unknown regions of the Sea. Churn so strong it could split a hull like an egg. Masses of trash so large they could bury entire fleets in one fell swoop. The place held only death and monsters for anyone mad or fool enough to tread there.

Still her father had gone, striding out on the Atlantic one morning, never to return. Claimed by the Sea, swallowed up like everything else that dared to challenge it, leaving nothing but trash and ruin in its wake.

Kay hated him for that. Hated that she was left to pick through the ruins for whatever could be saved. Hated that she’d been left to shoulder his mess when the dust had finally settled. She hated the Sea, the stench, the refuse, the churn that could end her in an instant. She hated the Pacific, how it fell to pieces and just would not hold together long enough to fix anything. She hated all of it.

But most of all, she hated that he’d left her all alone.

At that last though, Kay began to cry. Honestly, she had been holding back the tears for a long time but now they burst forth all at once. Long choked sobs escaped her throat as Kay curled herself into a tight ball, her body trembling as emotions both new and old raged through her. She cried out to no one, alone in her own little world of sadness and pain. She cried and cried and cried, cried for what could have been forever, until she had no more tears to shed.

When it finally ended, it left Kay feeling drained, empty and calm for the first time all night. With a remarkable clarity of mind, she wiped away the tears and rose from the bed, approaching the photo where it hung on the wall. She stared at it for a long time, her eyes drifting back and forth between the face of her father and her own younger self. Once, just once, she reached out to run a finger down the glass front, leaving it hanging for a long time as an idea took room mind. A horrible, terrible, very bad idea.

“Fortune and fillet, eh old man?”

The picture did not answer her.

*

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9.

It was another three days before Kay was finally discharged from the clinic. Allegedly this was to keep her under observation, but she suspected Doc Tom simply wanted the chance to lecture her, repeatably, about workplace health and safety.

It hadn’t taken her long to learn how recognize when they were coming. He always stood in the same stance when he  Back straight, head arched to leave his chin jutting out, feet spaced apart just enough to be notable without being obvious. Somehow it naturally drew the eye towards his face, penned in on either side by the neat grey of his military crew cut. Authoritative would be how Kay described it, naturally able command attention without the need to say even a single word.

Not that he didn’t employ those as well. His lectures were as thorough as they were numerous, covering everything from proper fire extinguisher maintenance to her appalling diet. To hear him tell it, Kay was perhaps the single most unhealthy person that had ever set foot on Bright Hope.

Or at least that was the gist of what she got. Kay didn’t really bother listening, instead mostly faking it by nodding along to his words at what felt like the appropriate points. He clearly didn’t buy it for a second but still he kept at it, hammering in just how stupid it had been to run into a burning engine room. Kay was fully aware of this fact and how lucky she was to have come back out alive.

For a given value of lucky of course. Burns covered most of her arms and face, mild but no less painful until they healed. Her eyes still itched horribly from the soot that had gotten into them, made worse by the need to flush them multiple time. By far the worst of it was her lungs. The smoke and fumes she breathed in while unmasked had played right merry hell with her inside as they ravaged the delicate organ. Doc Tom had assured her it wasn’t permanent but that was hard to appreciate when it felt like her chest was being ripped open every time she so much as sneezed.

Still she had improved steadily with each passing day. The deep, painful ache had quickly eased off its grip, allowing her to briefly get up and stretch her legs. The effort always left her fatigued, and often brought her headache straight back, but progress was nonetheless made. By the end of the first day, she could rise and walk around unassisted. By the second, she could do it without losing her breath.

By the third day, Doc Tom had run out of excuses to keep her in the clinic. He did his best to make a few up, offering an impressive final lecture that combined all previous points into a single masterwork argument, but to little avail. Kay was equally well versed the art of pretending by this point and simply had to outlast the good doctor. Their little contest lasted longer than she’d expected but eventually the good doctor was forced to concede and signed her discharge form.

“Thanks doc,” Kay said, accepting the sheaf of paper.

“Thank me by going home and getting some rest,” he grumbled back.

Kay went to reply but only a sharp cough came out instead. She proceeded with the business of hacking up a lung, gladly accepting the glass of water Doc Tom offered as she stood back up. His disapproving gaze watched, hawkish, as she drank and remained fixed on her even as she handed the glass back.

“I’m fine. Universe is just being funny.”

It was a lie and they both knew it. Doc Tom cast her another withering glare for a moment before softening into something resembling a bedside manner.

“I can prescribe an inhalant if you would like. To help soothe the pain.”

“Er, no, I’m alright. I’ll make do without.”

That one was only half a lie. She was going to make do without but it was less out of a want and more to do with the price tag attached to it. She knew this brief stint in the hospital was already going to cost her dearly, she didn’t much fancy adding yet more on top of that.

Doc Tom didn’t seem particularly convinced by her answer, but he didn’t press the issue. He imparted a few more pieces of medical wisdom, some reasonable, most doomed to be ignored. Kay for her part did her best to convey her genuine thanks for saving her life. The man simply grumbled in reply before reminding her to go home and rest.

Such ended up being the first bit of advice to be ignored as Kay instead made straight for the docks. Doctor’s orders or no, there was far too much that needed doing and she had already wasted enough time sitting on her ass. It was time to get back to work.

As was becoming a distressingly common trend, the docks were empty when Kay arrived. Unsurprising given that it was the middle of the day but still, it was a frustrating reminder that perfectly good daylight was burning outside. Almost a full working week gone by without earning a single cent out of the Sea. That alone threatened to unravel all her plans and it was going to be a hell of a feat to pull things back on track.

Moving as quickly as her wounds allowed, Kay made her way over to where the Pacific lay in its berth.She hadn’t actually seen the old girl since the explosion and, from the outside at least, it was difficult to tell that anything had happened at all. The ship looked just as ramshackle as ever, the same hodgepodge of bolts, welds and prayers somehow continuing to hold her all together. From what Oscar had told her, the damage was all internal, neither blast nor fire managing to break past the walls of the engine. Indeed, it wasn’t until she descended belowdecks that the damage began to show itself.

The smell hit her first, a lingering aroma of smoke and oil fumes, mixed with the heavy stench of chemical extinguishers. Scorch marks ran along both walls, radiating out from the engine room door in an ashen halo. The door itself had been repaired to an extent, bolted back into place with new, or at least newer, hinges that creaked heavily at the slightest movement. Even still, she could see where the blast had warped the frame, leaving everything just that little bit crooked. Ugly but functional, she could only hope that the important parts of the ship had suffered a similar fate.

Bracing herself, she pulled the door open and stepped inside. A pall washed over her as she did so, the same smell of oil and burning becoming so thick that she could taste it on the air. It made for a jarring contrast, as the room itself was cleaner than she’d seen it in a long time. Large swaths of the walls and floor had been scrubbed clean of soot and grime, revealing the dull steel that sat underneath. Looking at it from the right angle, Kay could almost convince herself that everything was fine, and that someone had simply played a bizarre prank on her.

Of course, that ‘right angle’ in this case meant that any angle where she couldn’t see the right-hand wall. Looking in that direction, Kay was treated to the truly disheartening sight of the adjoining engine in pieces. The central cylinder had been split open like a fish to reveal the mechanical innards, a complex nest of interlocking gears, shafts, fans, belts and wires that she could barely make sense of.

Like the walls, the engine looked remarkably undamaged, the pieces merely looking old and worn rather than the warped and destroyed she’d been expecting. Oscar sat on a small stool in the middle of it all, hunched over one of the larger bits of machinery with wrench in hand. The sound of the door creaking made him look up as Kay entered.

“Hey,” he said, curious, worried and happy all in the same syllable. “Thought you were still in hospital?”

“Doc let me off on good behavior.”

Oscar’s eyebrow went up at that and he was about to say something else when Kay cut him off.

“I’m fine Oscar. Really.”

He obviously didn’t believe her, making no effort to hide the fact, but didn’t protest. Before a truly awkward silence could settle on them, Kay asked the only salient question.

“How is she?”

Oscar blew out his lips, glancing around at the devastation with a look that spoke volumes more than any words could have. His eyes wandered from point to point, as if trying to find a good place to start in the mess. Kay was mildly insulted when his eyes eventually settled back on her.

“It’s…bad. Could be worse but, yeah, bad.”

Kay grimaced, working to keep a calm expression on her face.

“What broke? That oil thing you were watching?”

Oscar shook his head. “Nah, although that didn’t help.”

He gestured her over to a section of the wall, pointing a long cylindrical object within, which she quickly recognized part of the engine’s cooling system. A part that had seen better days going by the large hole melted in the side of it.

“The seal gave out on this while we were spinning up. Started dumping heat back into the system and, well, something had to give eventually.”

“And that something was?” Kay asked.

“Engine took the brunt of it,” He gestured around at the room at large. “That’s what most of this is.”

Kay felt the mask becoming harder and harder to hold but still she managed the task, catching only a slight warble as she asked the ultimate question.

“Can you fix it?”

“Not likely,” Oscar said. “All we can do is replace it.”

The words were like a needle to the little bubble of hope that had been holding on in her chest. Slight as it had been, some small part of her had thought that maybe, just maybe, the universe would pay her back with the one lucky break that might allow her to salvage this. A busted engine she could have accounted for, one holding on by a thread she could make work.  But damaged beyond repair? That was worst case scenario. A worst-case scenario she now found herself smack dab in the middle.

 Some of this mental spiral must have shown on her face because Oscar was suddenly standing next her, hand half raised to her shoulder.

     “Hey, are you alright? You look pale.”

Kay shook herself back to the moment, managing to make herself dizzy in the process. She felt Oscar’s hand settle on her arm, probably hoping to steady her, but instead Kay found herself taking a step back, breaking the contact with a sharp pull of her arm.

When everything settled, the two of them stood less than two feet apart but it might as well have been miles. Kay tried to grasp at something to say, all too aware of the hurt look on Oscar’s face. It was quickly covered by worry as he raised his hand again, although he did keep his distance this time.

“I think we should get you home. We’ll worry about this tomorrow.”

“I’m fine Oscar,” Kay said, through her voice lacked any conviction.

“Don’t doubt it, you’re going anyway.”

Kay wanted to protest, argue that they had far more important things to be doing right now, but the fight had gone out of her. Despite having spent the last three days in bed, she could think of nothing else she’d rather do right now then sleep.

Nodding her silent agreement, Kay turned towards the door and began to slowly shuffle back out into the hall. Oscar kept pace with her, offering a shoulder to lean on which she gratefully took. Together, they climbed back up onto deck and onto the docks, settling into a slow pace for the long trip back to her apartment.

“Thanks,” Kay said. It was the only word she could manage.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Oscar said offering her a smile. “We’ll figure it out. We always do.”

Kay could offer nothing but a weak smile in return, finding for the first time that she did not believe him.  

*

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8.

“Get up lazybones, you’re burning daylight!”

Kay grunted in annoyance, wrapping herself tighter in her blankets. She didn’t much care what she was doing with the daylight, being more concerned with staying in the nice warm bed. She had just about managed to fall back to sleep when the voice called again, joined by a hollow knocking on the door.

“Come on, up! Your breakfast is getting cold!”

Breakfast. Her only weakness. Damn.

Begrudgingly, Kay rose bleary-eyed from her bed, stretching and yawning herself awake as she emerged into the outside world.  A heavenly scent greeted her there, the mingled aromas of cooking oil, salt and butter wafting thickly through the air. Mouth watering, Kay moved to follow the smell towards its source in the nearby kitchen.

A plate was already waiting for her when she arrived, piled high with a mess of eggs, bacon and hash-browns, all so fresh that it still steamed lightly. Instantly Kay zeroed in on the offering, crossing the room in two quick strides to reach it. She didn’t even bother to sit down as she armed herself with a fork and attacked the food. It tasted as good as it had looked, the perfect blend of flavors exploding her mouth like a fireworks display. She tried to savor them, but hunger got the better of her and soon half the plate was gone.

“Well good morning to you too.”

Kay paused in her devouring long enough to acknowledge the voice’s owner through another mouthful. Her father stood at the stove, working with pan and spatula to prepare more food. A chuckle rumbled out of him at Kay’s less than polite response.

“I guess that counts.”

Embarrassed, Kay tried again after swallowing the mouthful.

“Sorry dad. Morning.”

Her father laughed again. “Morning kiddo, sleep well?”

“Pretty well,” she said. “Just, weird dreams, I guess.”

“Well they must have been,” her father said. “Weird kids have weird dreams.”

Kay smacked him playfully on the arm, laughing as he refilled her plate from the pan. She tucked in happily, slowing down this time to better appreciate the meal. Her father joined her with a plate of his own, accompanied by a cup of black sludge he kept insisting on calling coffee.

“Any plans today?”

Kay shook her head. “Not really, got a lesson to get finished but that’s about it.”

“Aren’t you on school break?”

“It’s correspondence, I can do it whenever I want.”

Her father snorted, amused. “You are a terrible teenager, you know that?”

“One of us has to be the grown…up…”

Kay trailed off, something nagging at the back of her mind. Something felt, off about this whole thing. She felt like she knew this conversation somehow, that something important had happened because of it but she could remember what.

And wait, teenager? She wasn’t a teenager she was in her twenties. School of any kind was well behind her. She’d dropped out when…when…she couldn’t remember why she’d dropped out. Why couldn’t she remember this?

Her father didn’t seem to notice his daughter’s distress, instead finishing his coffee with a flourish and rising from the table with empty dishes in hand. When had he finished eating? Looking down, Kay started when she realized her own was also empty. She did remember eating most of it. What was happening?

“Well, you’re on your own for dinner at any rate,” her father said. “I won’t be back until late.”

“W-why?” Kay asked, trepidation creeping into her voice.

Her father smiled, casting her a significant look “Going out far to dredge today, going out after the big one.”

He said this as if it was supposed to be reassuring but all Kay felt was a creeping dread take hold in her gut. There was something he wasn’t telling her, something important, but she couldn’t remember what.

“I don’t, think that’s a good idea,” Kay said.

He smiled again, confident and caring.

“I’ll be alright kiddo, a little risk is worth it for this payout. You’ll see, it’ll be fortunes and fillet for us after night.”

At those words Kay panicked. She remembered this, or something very much like this. If he walked out that door, he would not be coming back. This she knew, this she feared. She had to stop him.

But he was already leaving. His old oilskin thrown over one shoulder, his lunch-pail gripping in one hand. He had a smile on his face, waving cheerfully back to Kay as he turned to leave.

“See you tomorrow kiddo, don’t wait up.”

“Dad, wait, don’t go!”

Kay rushed forward, reaching out to grab him, pull him back, anything to stop him from walking out the door. She made it barely a step when floor shifted beneath her. Looking down, it wasn’t the floor anymore but a churning mass of trash. Her feet sunk deep into the mass, pulled down with a grip like iron. Her father seemed oblivious, the floor beneath him untouched, leaving him free to approach the door.

“Dad! Dad, stop!”

The Sea pulling her in faster now, encasing her shoulders now, everything below trapped and sinking fast. Soon she would be up to her neck. Still her father did not turn back as he opened the door wide.

“Dad, please…” Kay pleaded.

Her head was being swallowed now, wrenched back at a terrible angle. Her father was barely visible anymore, pushed off to the edges of her vision. He was stepping forward now, about to cross the threshold.

“Don’t leave me…”

The last thing Kay saw of her father was his back, disappearing as the door slid closed.

Then, there was only oblivion.

*

Consciousness returned to Kay like a punch to the face, both sudden and painful.

Her eyes snapped open like shot, flooding her vision with a blurry smear of light and colour. She winced against the harsh contrast, confusion ruling her mind as she worked to blink the world back into focus. It was a difficult task, her eyes feeling strangely heavy, much harder to move than they should be. And they itched horribly, the swollen skin tender as she made even the slightest move.

That was a mild pain compared to the throbbing headache hammering away at her skull. It felt like a spike had been driven in one temple and out the other, hitting every pain neuron in between. The light before her eyes made it worse but she didn’t dare close her eyes to block it out. She couldn’t go back to the darkness. Not now, not ever.

To Kay relief, the thunderous agony quickly dulled to a merely unpleasant throb, melding into the general ache that gripped her entire body. It felt like she’d been placed under a great weight, uncomfortable but manageable so long as she didn’t move. She tried not to picture the weight being a mass of trash as her vision finally cleared and she took in her surroundings.

Stark white walls sat before her, scrubbed so clean that they almost shone in the diffused light. Glass fronted cabinets sat at eye and knee level with rows of bottles within lined up like soldiers. She couldn’t read any of the labels, but she recognized them as medical.

Looking down, Kay discovered she lay in a bed, the sheets pulled up to cover her legs and leaving her arms sitting limply on either side. Wires and plastic tubing snaked from her right forearm and out of sight over the edge of the mattress. Turning her head after them, she discovered they connected to an IV stand and heart monitor set up next to her bed. The latter chirped away with a slow steady rhythm, matching line graphic on the screen.

She wasn’t dead then. That was probably a good thing.

“Kay?”

For a fleeting second it was her father’s voice speaking to her. Many things flooded her at once, joy, hope, fear and sadness mingling together into one great mass of conflicting emotion. Only with great effort did she manage to keep herself from falling apart all over again, the heart monitor spiking in volume in response. It was just a dream, she reminded herself. It couldn’t possibly be her father speaking because it was just a dream. Just. A. Dream.

Turning towards the voice, Kay found not her father but Oscar. He sat perched on a chair, leaning forward with hand braced against the bed as he looked down at her with concern.

She tried to greet him but all that came out was a violent, hacking cough. It left her completely paralyzed, what felt like a ball of needles bouncing around in with gleeful abandon. She gasped and wheezed, barely able to breathe as she waited for it to end. It was all she could do not to pass out before then.

Oscar re-appeared in her vision again, holding a glass up to her lips with one hand, steadying her head with the other.

“Here, drink,” he said, tilting the glass back. The water was the single most refreshing and delicious thing Kay had ever tasted and she greedily drank every drop until it was gone.

“Better?” Oscar asked.

Kay didn’t answer immediately, not wanting to risk another coughing fit so soon after the first. Instead she blinked her eyes back into focus for a better look at Oscar. He looked ragged, his clothes rumpled from being days worn and the scraggily beginnings of a beard clinging to his chin. Heavy bags sat under his eyes and it was clear he hadn’t showered recently, a greasy sheen clinging to his hair and face.

“…look like…shit…old man…” Kay said slowly, handling each word carefully.

A smile split across Oscar’s face. “Yeah well, you’re not much better brat.”

Kay almost laughed but she supressed it as pain began to rise in her chest. Taking a moment to steady herself, Kay eventually managed more words.

“…what…happened…?”

The smile vanished from Oscar’s face as he blew out his lips, sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed.

“Clamp slipped and we hit the deck hard. We’d have been screwed if the dock crew hadn’t got us out when they did.” He paused, tilting his head to indicate the room. “You were out cold when they brought us up here. That was three days ago.

Three days? The number seemed unreal to Kay. To her, only minutes had passed since she’d been in the Pacific’s engine room, battling to keep the fire under control. She remembered the scene vividly, the glow of flame against the smoke, arid stench flooding her unprotected nostrils, mask given up for crewmate’s sake.

Recalling that last detail, Kay scrutinized Oscar again and noticed for the first time the bandages wrapped around his arm. The same arm that she’d noticed bleeding during the fire. From the size of the dressing, it hadn’t been a small wound.

“…hurt…?” Kay asked.

Oscar gave her a look, following her gaze to the bandages before waving off her concern.

“It looks worse than it is. Dressing will probably be off by tomorrow.”

Kay was happy to hear that, even allowing for the fact that Oscar was almost certainly downplaying the severity. She let it slide for the moment, trusting that he wouldn’t do anything too stupid and moved on to a much more important worry.

“…ship…alright…?”

Oscar did not answer immediately, slowly lowering both arm and gaze while letting out a long breath. Panic thundered through Kay as she imagined increasingly terrible possibilities for what had become of her old rust bucket. She was on the edge of a nervous breakdown when Oscar finally broke the suspense.

“It’s, fine. Or as fine as it can be considering. I haven’t had a chance to look at it myself but I’m sure I can fix it.”

Kay let out a huge sigh of relief, almost setting off another coughing fit in the process. So long as it wasn’t a pile of actual scrap metal, that was something. It wasn’t good, but it was something and already Kay was beginning to crunch the numbers, planning for they were going to do next.

Something of it must have shown on Kay’s face because Oscar raised a hand to gently tap her on the forehead.

“Hey, none of that. You’re on bed rest until you’re better.”

“…not…the boss…of me…” Kay muttered, prompting a look for Oscar.

“Yeah well, let me go get Doc Tom and we’ll see who’s the boss of who,” He stood from his seat, pointing a stern finger at her. “Don’t move, be right back.”

Kay let him go without a word, letting herself sink back into the mattress with a sigh. Loathe as she was to admit it, bed rest really did sound good right about now. Though they had faded somewhat, the various pains she’d woken with remained, making every thought and movement infinitely more difficult. She should probably take advantage of the enforced time off to relax. After all, given that she wasn’t dead, she supposed that her debts were once again her problem.

Kay couldn’t tell what part of that fact upset her the most. She elected not to think about it.

*

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7.

Several thoughts ran through Kay’s head as the explosion rang throughout the ship.

First, and loudest, was panic as the entire pilothouse violently shuddered around her. It was a deeply instinctual reaction, the old fight-flight response that had been keeping human alive for centuries. Such a response was not helpful to her current situation however and Kay actively supressed it to make room for more important things. The sudden dose of adrenaline still left her heart hammering.

Second was confusion as her brain tried to catch up with what had just happened. Information flooded her from every direction, from a new, persistent creaking in the hull to the kaleidoscope of lights that flared angrily from her console. While the exact details of their warnings escaped her, Kay got the gist of it well enough. Things were not going well belowdecks.

Third was a stream of incoherent swearing. This damn ship just could not give them even just one day where something catastrophic didn’t happen. If it wasn’t ripping parts off itself, it was going for broke and trying to blow them sky high.

That thought led directly into her fourth and final one, the realization that she was probably lucky to be alive. If the explosion had been in the fuel tanks, she’d currently be little more than a charred smear on a wall somewhere. It must have gone off in the engine room itself, where the stronger walls would be able to contain the blast.

The same engine room that Oscar had been working in.

Swearing again, audibly this time, Kay slammed the emergency stop button on the side of her console. She had no idea if there was anything left to stop but she wasn’t risking it. That done, Kay switched the radio over to the emergency frequency and leaned forward to shout into the mic.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Pacific in distress! Unknown explosions! Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”

Barely a second passed before she got a reply, the familiar voice of Control, stripped of all his jovial antics to leave only focused efficiency

“Roger Pacific, reeling you in. Do you have any injuries?”

“Unknown!” Kay said. “Likely fire!”

“Understood, hang on.”

Outside, the dock crane began to move again, hauling them up away from the gate and back towards the docks. In flagrant disregard to Control’s orders, Kay did not hold on and instead sprinted out the door onto the deck, pausing only long enough to grab her rebreather. She’d need it if she was going to save this bucket of bolts.

The deck swayed horribly underfoot, the crane operator sacrificing stability in favor of getting them to solid ground as quickly as possible. Relying on her Sea legs to keep upright, Kay worked her way across tilting surface until she reached the hatch belowdecks. Without thinking, she wrenched it open and was immediately engulfed in a cloud of smoke, sending her in fit of ragged coughing. Fire confirmed then. Blinking away tears, Kay slipped the rebreather over her head and hurried down the stairs.

The door to the engine room hung askew in it frame, allowing thick clouds of smoke to billow out into the hall. Kay could taste its arid tang even through her mask filters, along with a worrying hint of burning oil. Rushing though the broken door, the smoke grew even thicker, such that Kay could barely see across the room.

Tongues of flame leapt from one of the engines, casting a sickly orange glow on the smoke, the heavy shadows making the fire look even larger. Or at least, she hoped it only looked larger.

“Oscar!” Kay called out. “Oscar, where are you!?”

“Here.”

 Relief flooded into Kay at the sound of his voice. Straining her eyes, she spotted movement through the smoke, Oscar’s silhouette emerging from the gloom on the far side of the room.

“You alright?” Kay said, moving toward him.

“Fire suppression’s shot! Grab an extinguisher, we need to get this out!”

His voice sounded strained, as if he were in pain, but Kay chose to ignore that in favor of more immediate concerns. From a small compartment marked ‘EMERGENCY’, she retrieved a small fire extinguisher and pulled the ring pin from the side. Praying it wasn’t too old to work, she aimed the nozzle at the burning engine and squeezed. To her great relief, a jet of white foam began to spray from the extinguisher, producing a sharp hiss as it hit the flames. Something was going right at last.

As Kay worked to keep the jet steady, Oscar appeared next to her out of the gloom. Armed with an extinguisher of his own, he began to douse the flames as well. They both aimed for the base of the fire, trying to douse as much of the engine as possible to keep it from spreading.

Their effort bore fruit, the orange glow beginning to dim as the flames shrank back down. They didn’t let up through, knowing that even a single spark could bring the whole thing back in an instant. Best thing to do was to assume it was still there and keep spraying until their extinguishers were empty.

As the flames shrank back into the engine, Kay shifted her jet to follow them inside the open compartment. Oscar did the same, but his aim was way off, hitting the outer casing as much as the actual flames. Glancing over at him, Kay saw he was due to him only using one hand to work the extinguisher. The reason why became obvious when she spotted the splashes of red running down his arm.

“You’re bleeding!” Kay called out.

“I’m fine, focus on the fire!”

Kay didn’t believe him for a second but did as he said, knowing that he was right. Even now, with the flames no longer visible, they couldn’t let up. So long as any fire burned, there was a chance it could spread and spark off something else, like a fuel line. If that happened, a bleeding arm would be the least of their problems.

As Kay went to resume her firefighting efforts, a sudden jolt ran through the ship, rattling it down to the bolts. Caught completely off guard, Kay was instantly thrown off her feet, losing all sense of direction as the smoke spun before her eyes. She landed hard on her back, crying out in surprise as the extinguisher flew from her hands, vanishing from sight as it rolled into the gloom.

Above, the sinister glow of the flames returned, freely spreading again with no one fighting it. Kay tried to stand but fell back to the floor with another cry, this one of pain as a bolt of agony lanced through her side. Apparently, she’d landed harder than she’d thought. Gritting her teeth, Kay made a second attempt, but the pain simply would not allow her to rise.

Falling back to the floor, Kay began to grope around blindly, looking around for something, anything, that could help. Instead she found Oscar, lying prone on the floor next to her. He was still moving thankfully, but only just, his movements as meek and uncoordinated as a newborn baby’s.

That was when she noticed, to her horror, that he wasn’t wearing a mask. This close, she could clearly see the shade of his nose and mouth, event through the thick haze of smoke. The haze of smoke the idiot had been breathing this whole time, along with god knew what else.

Cursing for a third time, Kay ripped the rebreather off her face and slipped it on over Oscar’s head. He struggled a bit, mind probably addled and panicking, but his clumsy swipes were powerless to stop her. The result barely fit him, straps pulling tight around the back, but the important parts were in the right place. Not ideal but at least he would be able to breathe.

The same could not be said for Kay herself. With no filter, the reality of the room hit her all in one go. An arid stench flooded her nostrils, followed near instantly by the bitter taste of metal on her tongue. Her vision began to spin wildly, blurring into a dark smear as fresh tears flooded her eyes in a vain attempt to keep them clear. Strangely, the pain began to fade, although Kay suspected that was a bad thing in the case.

Marshalling what little strength she had left, Kay began to crawl along the floor towards the door. While it was barely five feet away, it might as well have been the other side of the planet. Every movement felt like she was swimming through a pool of thick molasses, fatigue settling over her limbs like a physical weight. She struggled to draw even a single breath, what few she managed woefully short of the oxygen her lungs burned for it. Or perhaps that was simply the smoke running through them with abandon. Hurt like hell either way.

As true darkness began to press in on the edges of her vision, Kay thought about how this was such a stupid way to die. Spend your whole life working in one of the most dangerous environments known to man and here she was about to bite in on the docks. That would be an embarrassing thought if thinking of any kind wasn’t becoming so very difficult. AS she felt herself slid away, Kay had one last clear through before the darkness took her.

Who was going to pay all her debts now?

*

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