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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6.

Kay awoke with a start, wrenched from sleep by the sharp squawking of her morning alarm. Her immediate response to the sudden state of consciousness was to lie there unmoving, brain trying to comprehend what was going on. It succeeded after a moment of work, the reward for which was the realization that she was now awake. Sub-optimal, to say the least.

Pawing at the alarm to make it shut up, Kay flopped back against the mattress to consider her options. Going back to sleep was an attractive one, rolling over and drifting back off. It wouldn’t be that hard either as, despite the alarm’s insistence that it was morning, the room was still pitch dark. A side effect of her apartment’s complete lack of windows, the line between night and day was an arbitrary one at best. So long as she kept the overhead lights off, morning would never truly come, and she could keep right on sleeping. That would be nice.

That would also be very, very stupid. With a strangled growl from the back of her throat, Kay levered herself out of bed and stumbled towards the bathroom, navigating by touch and memory. Without thinking she flicked on the light above the sink, instantly regretting the decision as a dazzling glare flooded her vision like a punch to the face. She managed to hold herself upright by gripping the sink, waiting for the spots behind her eyes to settle.

Opening her eyes again, Kay found her own reflection staring back at her from the mirror. It was a wretched looking creature, eyes sunken and bloodshot, corners crusted with heavily with dried sleep. Both had dark bags hanging under them, contrasting sickly with the red blotches across her cheeks. Above, her hair was a rat’s next of knots and tangles. Below, her lips sat parched and dry, cracked almost to the point of bleeding.

She looked like hammered shit. Felt like it too, fatigue hanging heavy on her bones, making her feel twice her age. Christ, what Kay would not give for a day off. Just a nice, relaxing twenty-four hours where she could sleep for as long as she wanted and spend the rest in her pajamas, doing absolutely nothing. Just thinking about it got Kay feeling wistful, which quickly bloomed into frustration and resentment.

Kay quickly forced both emotions back down. She did not need this right now. It was going to be another long day, one that she quite literally could not afford to miss. Dwelling on the unfairness of the world would just make an already bad time even worse. Kay knew this from long, crushing experience.

Deep breaths helped, at least enough to get her moving again. If nothing else, the tiny little existential crisis had gotten her fully awake, even if she Still felt ready to collapse. Little things. Focus on the little things.

Gathering her strength, Kay set about preparing herself for the outside world. A shower to purge the last of her grogginess, presentable work clothes that weren’t completely threadbare, hair tied back to in its default braid to keep it out of her eyes. It managed to slightly improve her appearance from wretched to bedraggled. A quick protein bar for breakfast, day bag slung over her shoulder and Kay was out the door, ready to face the day.

Or at least that was what she kept telling herself.

*

Several ships were already getting underway by the time Kay made it to the docks. Although the sealed dome hid it from the them, the sun had already risen outside into the closest approximation of daylight the Sea ever got. The larger, more motivated crews always sought to take full advantage of that, making it their business to be the first ones through the gates. Kay hoped, with a little luck, that she would be following them out soon.

The Pacific was right where they had left it, sitting quietly in its berth. Looking at it, Kay couldn’t help but notice that the old girl was also looking rather wretched. Dents and tarnishes covered the hull, built up over successive years of sailing the Sea, many more than she’d been built for. Her legs had suffered the worst, yesterday far from the first time they had been bent in the line of duty. Rust was a plague on anything more complicated than a flat metal surface, veins of reddish-brown running like rivers in complex patterns. About the only thing not held together by duct tape and prayer was the new crane they’d bolted on yesterday. Even that somehow already looked creaky, as if corrupted by the Pacific’s decrepitude. The whole thing looked more like it belonged in the Sea rather than striding atop it.

Doing her best not to think about that, Kay crossed over the gangplank and stepped up onto the deck, making a beeline for the hatch and descending into the hallway below decks.

“Come on you little bastard, work!”

Kay chuckled, recognizing the voice immediately. Pulling the engine room door, a wave of heat washed over her from within, filled with the scent of grease and burning metal. The titular engine dominated much of the space, two powerful cylinders running the length of the room, drive shafts for the legs jutting out in every direction. Oscar stood amid it all, tinkering with exposed machinery as incoherent vocalizations streamed from his mouth, carrying the spirit of swears if not the grammatical integrity.

“You talking to me?” Kay asked.

“Are you leaking oil like a sieve?”

“Not last I checked,” Kay said.

“Then no, I am not talking to you.”

Kay started to laugh but it quickly petered out as the implication of his words started sinking in.

“Are we good?” Kay asked.

With one final growl, Oscar kicked the side of the engine, producing a hollow bang.

“Yeah we’re good, I’ll just have to keep an eye on it.” He turned to face her, mutely taking in her disheveled appearance. “Rough morning?”

“Normal morning,” Kay said, waving away his concern. “Anything else need doing?”

Oscar shook his head. “Nope. We can leave whenever.”

“Right, get us squared away then. I want to be gone soon as I get back.”

Oscar nodded one last time, turning to fiddle with some other bit of the engine. Kay left him to it, making a quick stop in the crew cabin to drop off her bag, before climbing back topside. Disembarking, she retraced her steps back towards King’s dockside office.

Unlike her last visit, this one was entirely expected. Lax as some of the harbour’s policies were, it still required all ships to register where they intended to dredge before they could leave. Not exactly a gold standard safety measure but certainly better than nothing.

“Good morning your majesty,” Kay said through the sharpest of smirks.

“Not in the mood today,” King shot back, filing something away in a cabinet. He looked tired, more so than usual. Apparently, everyone was having a bad morning today.

“Aw, you’ll hurt my feelings your grace.”

“Spare me. Grid coordinates?”

Getting the point, Kay rattled off the string of numbers corresponding to a region of the Sea around Bright Hope. After noting them down in his records, King marked a small magnet with the Pacific’s name and took it over to a large map hanging on the wall. It showed a simplified grid layout of the Sea, centered on the harbour and stretching out for miles in every direction.

Around the harbour was drawn a large, red circle that stopped well before the edge of the map. Every other marker already on the wall sat within it, as would the rest once they were registered. The circle was the limit of safety for a dredger, the region around Bright Hope where the churn was relatively well mapped, at least enough that conditions could be reliably predicted. So long as you stayed behind that line, other vessels would be able to reach you in an emergency. Beyond the red line, you were on your own, out of the range of both rescue and radio. Wander out there and you were likely to never to be seen again.

Kay knew that better than most.

Once the Pacific’s marker was up, well behind the line with the others, King settled behind his desk and resumed scribbling.

“Do you just do that on reflex? The writing?”

He paused to glare at her a moment before turning a page and continuing.

“Don’t forget, you have a payment due at the end of the week.”

Kay rolled her eyes. As with everything else in Bright Hope, if it was even vaguely official, it involved King in some way. Debt collector was just another of his many jobs.

“You’re all heart, your majesty.”

“Someone has to be the bad guy.”

“I thought that was my job?”

“No, you’re the annoying one. Now go away and let me work.”

*

Kay returned to the Pacific to find the old girl had once again been brought back from the brink. She chugged away ponderously, belching thick clouds of exhaust that lingered nearby like a sulphurous aura. To the outside observer, the idea that anyone would try to move this thing, let alone take it out on the turbulent churn of the Sea, would seem absurd. Kay was just glad it was working again.

Oscar met her as she was crossed the gangplank, using a badly stained cloth to wipe soot off his face.

“Apparently everyone is having a bad morning. She going to hold together?”

Oscar shrugged. “Like I said, I’ll have to keep an eye on it. Try and keep us at three quarters until I can get a better idea what we’re in for.”

Kay blew out a breath. “That’s going to put us behind.”

“No choice, unless you’d rather have no engine at all.”

Expressing her thoughts on that with a low growl and random strangling gestures with her hands, Kay took a moment to center herself before trying words again.

“Alright fine, we’ll make it work. Go strap yourself in, we’ll be underway soon.”

With a shared nod, the two of them split up, Oscar back belowdecks, Kay towards the waiting helm in the pilothouse. Settling into her seat, she elected to do a double pass of the usual checks. It seemed a prudent step considering all the abuse they’d put the Pacific through over the last couple of days.

When everything came back happy, Kay switched on the radio and waited for the acknowledging burst of static before speaking.

“Bright Hope Control this is dredging vessel Pacific, requesting cast-off through gate four.”

“Roger Pacific.” A pause. “Seriously?”

Control had presumably just caught sight of the Pacific through his screens. From his tone, he apparently wasn’t impressed.

“Problem Control?”

“I mean, not for me. Can’t say the same for you.”

“Control…” Kay’s words were somewhere between sigh and snarl.

“Alright, alright. Cast-off to gate four coming up. Hold tight.”

In short order, a crane moved into position above them, dropping its claw to lift them up out of the berth. As they moved through the air Kay engaging the drive system, priming the legs to take their weight once they were down. The Pacific protested every step of the process but did nothing that Kay hadn’t see before. In short order, everything was settled into position and ready to begin. So far, so good.

Below them, gate four began to slide open, heralded by the call of yet another klaxon. The crane slowed to a stop above the opening and began to lower them down towards the Sea.

They were halfway down when something exploded.

*

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5.

Kay barely noticed the walk back to her apartment. She knew the route so well by this point that she required only a minimum of conscious thought to navigate it. Turn left here, up three flights until you hear the noisy vent, then down the hall, third door on the right. If you hit the fuse boxes shaped kind of like a butterfly, you’ve gone too far.

She enjoyed the fact since not needing to pay active attention allowed Kay to instead focus on nothing at all. By conscious choice, she allowed no thought more complicated than placing one foot in front of the other to pass through her mind. She even took the long way just to prolong the state a few minutes more. So long as it lasted, there were no crises to address, no setbacks to endure, no worries to weigh on her mind. For that short span from docks to apartment, Kay enjoyed some semblance of freedom. It was possibly the nicest feeling she’d felt all day.

As she wound her way deeper, Kay let her eyes wander over the bare metal walls of Bright Hope’s residential wing. Not even here were they granted free space, the philosophy of cramming everything in wherever it fit haunting every nook and cranny. Some consideration had been given to human traffic, various mechanical and electrical components built high or low to keep the walls at walking level smooth and clear. For the most part at least. It wasn’t a hard or fast rule and plenty of hazards remained, ready to catch those without sharp vigilance or good instincts. Kay, possessing the second, breezed past without a scratch.

Soon, too soon, the narrow hallway widened into a small public plaza, granting at last some blessed elbow room. An overambitious attempt to simulate a park, the place was strewn with the remnants of the effort. Benches lay scattered around in clusters, framing planter boxes that had never held anything green. Empty storefronts lay decrepit along the walls, some abandoned, most never occupied in the first part.

On the largest open wall sat the centerpiece of the project, a large mural pained directly onto the metal. Stretching the length and height of the wall, it depicted a pastoral scene of rolling green hills, sunrise peaking over the horizon to bathe the land in a pleasant yellow glow. Splayed across the top in flowing red script was the title of the piece, Tomorrow.

Apparently, it was based off a real place, far away from Bright Hope and the Trash Sea, where green thing still grew wild. Kay didn’t know about that but it had been a wonderful rendering regardless, intended to add some cheer and perhaps a little hope to the hardworking residents of the harbour.

Such lofty notions were gone now, faded into a dusty, grey pallor of its former glory. Graffiti covered the wall liberally in a patchwork of vandalism, the kind of thing produced by an excess of both drink and emotion. Most of it was scrawled text, joined by the occasional blotch that no doubt had made perfect sense to someone at the time. Some of the chaos instead sought to more accurately reflect the reality of Bright Hope, covering the pastoral field in crude piles of trash, complete with wavy lines to imitate the stench.

The most notable addition was a simple “NO” drawn in large black letters next to the title. The many other contributors had shied away from obscuring this addition, leaving a stark frame of clear space that ensured it was obvious to even the most cursory glance. Thus was the piece re-dubbed, No Tomorrow.

Kay had never been able to decide if the changes made the mural better or worse and instead elected not to think about it at all.

Shaking her head, Kay quickly passed through the plaza and entered another hallway. Apartment doors lined the walls within, like the Executive Level but much smaller and closer together. Each was labeled with a simple stenciled number, Kay’s being number fifteen in the row. Sliding her key into the lock, she had to wrestle with the latch a moment before it would turn, the tracks squeaking loudly as the door slid open. Darkness met her from within, but memory guided her to the light switch and the room flared into view.

It wasn’t an especially nice apartment. Small even by the standards of Bright Hope, it had a grand total of two rooms, one a bathroom, the other pulling triple duty as kitchen, bedroom and sitting room. Like everything else in her life, everything was pressed up against one another. Her fold out bed, strewn with messy covers and unwashed laundry, sat not three feet from the stove and kitchen table, in turn not four feet from the bathroom door. Some effort had been made to soften the harsh metal walls with a layer of paint and cheap imitation wood fixtures, but they weren’t fooling anyone. Certainly not the woman who lived with them.

From across the room, the framed photograph of Kay’s father watched her enter. It dated back to their first year living in Bright Hope, showing her father standing in front of the Atlantic, the Pacific’s sister ship. A much younger Kay stood next to him on the dock, her arms raised in celebration of some forgotten victory. They both smiled at the camera, her father caught on the cusp of a laugh, making him look even more cheerful. Kay remembered the moment well. It had been a happy one, the beginning of great things.

Blowing out a breath, Kay threw her bag down on the floor and slid the door shut behind her. Oscar would be there soon, and she needed to get this place looking presentable. The dishes weren’t too bad and could be easily stacked out of sight, the food refuse similarly simple to toss away. Her bed could be folded away out of sight and the dust bunnies swept up. They were little things, but they would help.

First though, she needed a shower. Crossing to the bathroom, she twisted the faucet all the way into the red, leaving it to heat up as best it could. Stripping out of her work clothes, she pitched them into the hamper, already half full and growing rather ripe. She hoped the lid would contain the smell for now, not having the time to run down to start a load at the laundry.

Sticking her hand back under the water, she found it as warm as it was going to get and stepped under the cascading stream. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, the barely lukewarm water making her skin prickle uncomfortably. At least she could wash off the stink of the Sea, handfuls of soap eventually freeing her of the layer of grime that clung to her skin. She’d never truly be free of the stench this close to the Sea but she was accustomed enough that she could mostly ignore it. Once she was scrubbed clean, Kay shut the water off and dried herself with a towel, all the while searching for more things could be tidied up.

The table immediately leapt out as an area of concern. It was coated in a layer of paper envelopes, some torn open, others as pristine as the day they had arrived. Each sported a stamp in the vein of “Final Notice” or “Past Due”, bold red ink standing out sharply against the off-white paper. It almost looked like some ghoulish imitation of a tablecloth, one that Kay suspected would make for poor dinner conversation. Opening a drawer in the side of the table, she swept them all inside, shutting it to banish them all from sight. Little things, that was that idea.

She was halfway through sorting out the rest of the kitchen when a knock sounded at the door. Throwing a dishtowel over her shoulder, Kay crossed the room in three steps and pulled it open to reveal Oscar standing on the far side. He held two cloth bags limply in one hand and was also scrubbed clear, looking mildly more human dressed in clean clothes.

“Allo,” Kay said.

“Hey,” He nodded. “Am I late?”

“Oh terribly. We must work on your manners.”

Kay stepped aside and Oscar entered without hesitation, handing her the bags before turning to address the state of her kitchen. Kay left him to his fussing and instead focused on digging through the bags. She quickly realized he he’d brought ingredients rather than finished food. Frozen veggies, flour, oil, a pound of ground beef, more than enough to make something hearty. Kay appreciated the gesture. It gave the veneer, however thin, that she was contributing something of substance to this meal.

Working together, they threw together a simple stir-fry, Oscar working his spice magic to add some proper flavor to the dish. The result easily filled two plates and Kay managed to find two last beers hiding in the back of the fridge. A feast fit for a king, or at least two hungry dredgers, both of whom quickly sat down and tucked in.

“How’s the old girl doing?” Kay asked between mouthfuls. “She still sounded pretty beat up when I left.”

Oscar shrugged. “Stubborn but fixable. I’ll have to go in a bit early tomorrow, but she’ll be ready by cast off.”

Kay almost told him not to push himself, in an appropriately teasing way of course, before remembering she didn’t have that luxury. To make a living, they needed the Pacific running and couldn’t afford to waste prime daylight hours fixing it. Just like with dinner, Kay wasn’t really in a position to not take advantage of her shipmate’s generosity. It wasn’t the first time she’d done so and Kay suspected that it would be far from the last.

Oscar never seemed to care, approaching her blatant mooching the same way he approached everything else in life. He just went with it, seemingly never letting the annoyances get to him. Usually Kay was content to leave it at that but tonight, the question nagged at her mind, building louder and stronger until it could no longer remain unspoken.

“Hey, can I ask you a weird question?” Kay asked.

“Only if you want a weird answer,” Oscar replied.

Kay paused, gathering her courage before asking.

“Why do you stay on?”

It was Oscar’s turn to pause, a forkful of food halfway to his mouth. He put it down, looking at her with an expression that Kay couldn’t quite read. Some bizarre mix of confusion, sympathy and hurt.

“You’re right, that was a weird question,” Oscar finally said.

“I mean, you’re a good dredger,” Kay said, gesturing vaguely in his direction. “Probably the best one I know. You could have your pick of postings if you went looking. Hell, you could probably have your own ship if you wanted. So why do you keep hanging out with my unlucky ass?”

Oscar didn’t answer immediately. Instead he let his eyes wander about the room, looking anywhere but at Kay. When his eyes fell on the photograph of her father, they paused for a notably longer span. It occurred to Kay that Oscar had probably been there, likely the one who had taken the photo.

For long, dragging minutes Oscar stared at the image with the same unreadable expression, muted somewhat by the misty gaze of recollection. Eventually, he turned back to look Kay in eye.

“Too loyal for my own good I guess.”

He returned to his meal; the question apparently settled to his satisfaction. Kay went to say something else but decided against it, choosing to take another swig of her beer instead. Perhaps this was another thing that didn’t bear thinking too hard about.

The remainder of their meal was spent in amiable silence, broken by the occasional bout of small talk, with just a dash of reminiscing thrown in for good measure. Kay found the whole affair immensely enjoyable. With the weight of her nagging thoughts gone, she was able to simply enjoy a good meal with a good friend. Oscar seemed to feel much the same, though it was difficult to tell given that muted grumpy contentment was kind of his default setting.

Inevitably, the food was eaten, the beer drank, and their evening rapidly wound to a close. They did their level best to delay the end, chatting idly about nothing, in no rush to see the coming of tomorrow. Still, despite their best attempts, reality eventually won out

“It’s getting late,” Oscar said, wandering for the door. “I should get going.”

“Probably,” Kay said. “Oh, before you go…”

Kay rose from her seat and crossed to the table, opening a drawer and retrieve a money clip she’d separated earlier from the day’s take.

“Your share,” she said, offering him the bundle of bills.

Oscar took the money, flicking through the bills with a pleased look on his face.

“Not bad for the day we had,” he said. “See, told you it would work out.”

Kay did her best to keep her expression neutral, electing for a tired smile that could hide some of what she was really feeling.

“Yeah, yeah,” Kay said. “See you tomorrow.”

Oscar nodded, giving her a quick pat on the shoulder before leaving, sliding the door shut behind him. Kay gave him a minute to move away before letting out her breath in a quiet sigh. More than half their profit for the day had just walked out the door with her shipmate. What was left would just cover one of her bills. That was something at least. Little things.

Suddenly feeling very tired, Kay turned to unfold her bed and collapse into it. Tomorrow was going to be another long day.

*

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4.

To meet with the King of Bright Hope, one first had to find their way to his throne. This was no simple task as away from the berths, everything descended into a twisting network of hallways, catwalks and maintenance shafts that were technically restricted. Signs were rare, a straight line from point A to B even rarer. Kay couldn’t even begin to imagine what would be like for someone who had never seen it before. As it was, even she only knew it by route memorization and a long history of becoming hopelessly lost.

Drawing on those hard-earned memories, Kay quickly wound her way through the maze until she arrived at a familiar staircase. It didn’t go all the way to the level she wanted but it did give her more direct access to another set of stairs that did. Climbing up a total of ten combined flights, she finally arrived at her destination, the holiest of holies, the Executive Level.

A grand title for what was essentially just a larger hallway with some offices lining one wall. Each was rented out to an interested party, scrap companies and the like, to give them some onsite presence. Few were consistently used, Kay noting as she passed that only two of them even occupied by flesh and blood humans. That didn’t surprise her. Most business in Bright Hope was done remotely, funneled through the very man she was here to see.

At the end of the hall sat the only permanently occupied office of the lot. It looked no different from the rest, save for the words “King’s Court” someone had crudely painted on the outside. A smile spread across Kay’s face as she pulled the door open, taking only a few steps into the room before dropping into an exaggerated curtsy.

“Greetings to his majesty. May your reign by long and prosperous.”

“Have we never heard of knocking?” Came the annoyed reply.

Kay’s smile widened as she took in the King of Bright Hope: Harbourmaster Jacob Allister King.

The man all but embodied the phrase “beleaguered civil servant”. His hair had long ago gone grey, thinning around the edges even as the body of it fought valiantly to hold off baldness. Lines scarred the deep pits of his eyes, giving the impression that he was blind, even as his sharp eyes caught every detail. He looked, well not old per-say, though he was up there in years. More he looked worn down, frayed around the edges, his long years of single-handedly keeping the port running taking their toll, in triplicate.

King’s “court” reflected its monarch rather well. While the office was not small, it certainly felt like it was thanks to the frankly ludicrous amount of paperwork that had been crammed into it. Piles, literal piles, of paper beyond the ken of even the most impressive filing cabinet sat strewn around the space, burying everything unlucky enough to be caught underneath them. At its center lay King’s throne, a simple wood and steel desk with a faux leather armchair behind it. King presently sat in the that very seat, ruling over his kingdom by means of scribbling away with a pen on a bit of paper.

“A thousand pardons your majesty. I meant no offense and shall endeavor to redeem myself in your benevolent eyes.”

King continued writing. “Why do I let you stay in my harbour again?”

“Because I’m just so darn lovable,” Kay said.

“Oh of course. How could I have forgotten?” He paused in his writing to reread something, then continued. “What do you want?”

“I need want something to come see you?”

King paused his writing again, casing her a withering look. Kay instantly reigning her smile. He was in a mood today, probably better that she didn’t push her luck.

“I need to requisition some parts,” Kay said, approaching the desk.

King, shockingly, put his pen down to address her properly. Not a surprise, this was part of his actual job. Or rather, one of the several jobs that circumstance had forced him into. When Bright Hope had been effectively abandoned, one of the first groups to leave on mass had been the officials. The clerks and bookkeepers, the people who handled all the boring minutia of running a dredger economy. Reliant on dredgers for work, they had pulled up stakes with all the rest and gone in search of work elsewhere.

With no one to delegate to, King had inherited all their jobs, becoming sole controller of everything from docking records to trade liaison for basically every company with a stake in Bright Hope. How he managed to do all that without leaping into the Sea at earliest opportunity no one knew, and no one dared press the matter. Without him, most of their jobs quite simply would not be possible.

“What parts do you need?” King asked, pulling Kay back to the present.

“Oh, just a winch and spool of cable.”

“Hm, shouldn’t be a problem.”

“And a crane arm.”

“Okay…”

“And a claw. If you have one.”

King stared at her in much the same way he would a plump water balloon flying at his face. Kay held the gaze as best she could, trying to pretend everything was normal.

“…so just a whole new crane then?”

“Mechanical problems,” Kay insisted, injecting every bit of charm she had into the words. King just continued staring at her until his shoulders deflated with a sigh and a slight roll of the eyes.

“Alright, fine. Let me get the forms filled out.”

Rolling his chair back from the desk, King began to dig through the mounds of paper sitting on the floor behind him. That section was the crown jewel of his filing system, a heaping mess that seemed less like a pile and more like a mass that just bulged up out of the floor. It reminded Kay of the Sea. Messy, chaotic and hiding precious things.

King turned out to be the skilled dredger of that metaphor. With a motion that Kay didn’t fully catch, he extracted a thin sheaf of papers from the middle of a stack, somehow keeping the whole from collapsing in the process. Rolling back to his desk, he took up a pen and resumed scribbling. Kay expected questions but he didn’t even look up once until he handed her the finished product.

It was a standard requisition form, the same as hundreds of others that swam around her in this sea of paper. All her information had already filled in, King apparently knowing all of it off by heart. Kay tired not to think about what that meant as she skimmed the pages, double checking that everything was correct. All looked fine and Kay was just about to sign her name at the bottom when her eyes fell on the total price for the parts. That was quite a few zeros.

“Uh…can I…” Kay began.

“Yes, you can borrow against your haul.”

“Thanks,” Kay said, smiling to cover up her embarrassment. Taking up a pen, she signed her name and handed the whole thing back across the desk.

“Give it an hour to process,” King said, placing it in a box labeled ‘headaches’. “We’ll square up payment after you get your haul unloaded.”

“You’re the best,” Kay said, turning to leave. “I ever tell you that?”

“Every time you’re in here. Now go away.”

*

The rest of the afternoon passed rapidly, not a single second of it spent idle. After returning to the Pacific, Kay had joined Oscar in the tedious task of stripping their salvage of any usable parts. The older pieces were sparse in that regard, so degraded that they were lucky to find even a single gear that hadn’t stripped it teeth long ago. By contrast, the newer pieces were a veritable cornucopia, offering up a wide selection from wiring to mechanicals to even the occasionally piece of electronics. Between the two of them, Kay and Oscar managed to strip an impressive collection from the haul, finished just as a dock crane brought their replacement crane.

Those repairs proved a much more time-consuming task. Replacing the actual arm was easy, a simple matter of loosening and tightening bolts while the dock crane did all the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, that was the only step it could help them with, being too unwieldly for precision work. For everything else they were down to hand carts and old-fashioned muscle. And swearing, but that was more of a style choice.

They started with the winch assembly, the only part just light enough to move with only minor damage to their spines. Working together they moved it over to the base of the crane, hoisting it up to be swapped out with the damaged one. More bolts and several support struts went into making sure it was properly secured.

Lastly came the cable. Wheeling it over as they had the winch, they threaded one end through the machine and attached the other end to the claw. From there it was a simple matter of switching on the winch and letting the mechanism do the rest. With barely any input from either of them, outside of one close call, the claw was quickly reeled in and Pacific once again had a functional crane. The whole process left Kay with both a vague sense of accomplishment and knowledge she would be sore come tomorrow morning. And they weren’t anywhere near done yet.

After a short break to celebrate and dread respectively, the two of them split up for their remaining tasks. Oscar descended below decks, aiming to see if he could yet extract some life from their poor engines.

Kay meanwhile climbed behind the newly resurrected crane controls and began moving their haul out of the hold. Those pieces they had already stripped she deposited directly into the collection bin sitting on the dock next to them. The rest she placed up on the deck, much preferring to work in the merely stale air out here over the stinking miasma of the Pacific’s hold.

She had just finished moving everything and was about to resume stripping out parts when a klaxon sounded. It was joined swiftly by grinding machinery as gates began to open and the largest dock cranes came alive on their tracks. Kay glanced at her watch, confirming what the sudden spike in activity was already telling her. The other dredgers were coming in for the day.

Trying to continue working, Kay found her focus split between her task and watching the procession of ships above. She recognized many of them, the sleek Lassider, the hulking bulk of the Lavender Queen and mighty eight legs of the Allegro. Several berths down, she saw the sister ships Jupiter and Zeus and fancied she could hear their brother captains arguing about who got there first. And, of course, there was the Stellar, glittering as fabulously as always, despite the filth clinging to her hull.

 Kay waved to those that passed close enough, smiling up at the men working on deck. Those that noticed her returned the gesture but the change in their demeanor’s didn’t escape Kay’s notice. The best of them simply shook their heads sadly before returning to their work. The worst took the time to stop and stare, pointing her out to their fellows as they leaned in to share some unheard comment or joke. Bastards could at least have the common courtesy to try hiding their blatant rubbernecking.

Sighing heavily, Kay turned away from them and back towards their pile of salvage. There was still work that needed to be done and no one else was going to do it for her. She still felt the stares burning into her back regardless.

*

After another two hours, Kay finally had the entire haul processed and ready for sale. Their sorting bins were emptied, contents weighed and shunted away, destined for recycling plants far away from the Sea. Every conceivably salvageable bit of the machines had been stripped and sorted, set aside to be assessed for sale separately. The rusting husks that remained had been thrown in the collection bin, along with the remains of their old crane. No sense wasting perfectly good scrap after all.

Just as Kay had finished loading the last box of parts, Oscar poked his head up from below decks.

“So how screwed are we?” Kay asked.

“Terribly,” Oscar said. He walked over to her and began to dig through the parts. He selected a gear, holding it up for quick inspection before tossing it back on the pile.

“You can fix it then?” Kay asked.

“Going to need some time but yeah.” A second gear failed his test and got thrown back. On a whim, Kay reached in and held up a random offering. It passed muster and disappeared into the depths of Oscar’s tool belt. “Everything alright up here?”

“Just finished. I was about to go cash out.”

Oscar grunted, taking another gear off the pile and some spindly part whose purpose escaped her. Kay flashed him a smirk.

“Try not to take all our profit for the day.”

“Do you want a working ship tomorrow or not?”

“Yes. I’d also like to eat at some point,” Kay said, stopping just short of sticking her tongue out at him. “Speaking of, you want to come over for dinner tonight?”

“Over for dinner or bring you dinner?”

“Yes.”

Oscar rolled his eyes before taking one last part from the box before turning back below decks. “That’s all I need. Meet up for six at your place?”

“Don’t be late” Kay shot back, earning only a disinterested grunt in reply.

A quick call into Control brought a dock crane to pick up the collection container. Kay watched it go for a moment before losing it in the mess of movement raging above. With all the dredgers in for the day, the dock cranes were fully engaged, moving cargo to and from the ships with abandon. It felt busier than normal somehow, it must have been a very profitable afternoon of dredging for everyone. Good for them, Kay was very happy for them and not at all sour. Honest.

Putting aside her totally not jealous annoyance, Kay disembarked and dove back into the maze of hallways. Her destination was much closer this time, a mere one level up to the closest thing Bright Hope had to a bank. Although that was overselling it. The place was mostly just a converted storeroom that King manned during the afternoon rush, putting on another of his many hats to become the harbour’s purser. During those hours, he was the man to talk to about being paid.

“His majesty honors we mere mortals with his presence,” Kay said as she approached the booth.

“Were the parts to your liking?” he asked, remaining focused on his ledger.

“Well enough, they’ll hold,” Kay said. “Any trouble with my haul?”

“Just waiting on-”

His words were cut off by a thudding sound as a pneumatic tube on the wall next to him disgorged a small plastic canister. Removing it from the pipe, King unscrewed the top and perused the papers within. Barely pausing to nod, he took up a rubber stamp and slammed it solidly down on the surface, marking it with Bright Hope’s official seal. From a cash box he extracted a selection of bills, securing them in place with a simple metal clip before handing the whole thing to Kay.

“His majesty is most gracious and-”

Kay stopped as she got a closer look at the bundle’s contents. Her pause seemed to catch more of Kings attention than anything else, going so far as to pause in his work to look up at her.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“This is it?” Kay asked right back, holding up the paper to show off the total. The bundle was bills was notably thin against the paper.

“You borrowed against your haul,” King said, gesturing at the bundle of bills. “Minus fuel and fees, that’s the remainder. You did have light day.”

“Not this light! Should be at least double this!”

King shrugged helplessly. “I don’t control the market Kay. I can only pay you what your haul is worth.”

Kay wanted to argue but her more rational side held her tongue. There really was nothing King could do for her, short of literally breaking laws. He’d technically already done more than he had to by getting her those parts. Didn’t make the sum any less pitiful, especially considering all the disasters that had led up to it.

“Yeah, I know,” Kay said. “Thanks.

King looked like he was about to say something more but stopped himself, choosing instead to simply nod and return to his work. Any further conversation was put to rest when another group arrived. Kay stepped aside to let them pass, the two men barely noticing her as she left the room.

They had just started to square up when a scream of utter frustration rang out, making all three men jump.

*

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3.

Bright Hope Harbour. Kay had never been able to figure out if the place had been named optimistically or ironically.

For starters, the place was not bright by any stretch of the imagination. A large metal dome formed the bulk of the structure, long ago rendered bull by layers of filth and grime. Even sitting high above the Sea on its man support legs, it was difficult to pick it out from the background gloom of the sky. It would be nearly impossible were it not for the pulsing light sitting atop the dome and even that only worked to a point.

Hope was inaccurate in less obvious ways. True, the place had a distinctly ramshackle feel to it. Everything just a little uneven, a strong vein of the slapdash running through each part of its construction. Even beneath the layers of filth, Kay could see where breaches in the surface had been patched over with the industrial equivalent of duct-tape, bad welds and differing materials doing a poor job of holding up to the elements. The very embodiment of ‘eh, that’ll do’ run wild.

Each was a by-product of harbour’s explosive founding. Years ago, the surrounding area had suddenly become flush with extremely valuable salvage, waves of pristine material and functional technology pulled to the surface by the churn. Dredgers had come in droves to seek their fortunes, followed closely by a a flood of support services. Both groups had worked to hastily throw Bright Hope together to have solid ground to work from, emphasis on haste. There was money to be made after all. Getting something working now had been more important than keeping it working later.

And it had worked for a time, money practically flowing through the place like a river. Old dredger tales from the time spoke of being able to stick your hand in the Sea and pull out small fortunes by the fistful. Kay believed them. She’d seen more than a few hook-handed dredgers in her life.

Then the Sea, ever fickle, had stolen it all away. A shift in the churn swallowed the waves back beneath the surface, taking the riches with them. Almost overnight, the area had gone from the stuff of legend to just another pile of trash. Just as quickly as it had been built, Bright Hope was abandoned. Those who could afford to departed in search of better prospects. Those who could not were left to scrape by on whatever they had left.

The Harbour part of the name, at least, was accurate. The place was unquestionably a harbour. A dull, forgotten, utterly gutted harbour sitting on the edge of the Sea with its perfectly fitting, optimistically ironic name.

Through the pilothouse window, Kay watched as the dome steadily grew bigger before them. She had plenty of time to appreciate the sight as they toddled along at less than a quarter speed. Oscar had firmly told her to go no faster before sequestering himself to the engine room to keep direct watch over the infernal contraption. They’d already had one major catastrophe that day, they didn’t need another.

Kay understood the need, she just didn’t like it. Being left alone at the helm with nothing to do but listen as the legs clicked rhythmically was not her idea of entertainment. Worse, the leg that had been damaged was ever so slightly off beat, just enough that it was impossible for Kay to lose herself in the sound. She almost regretted the fact that it was perfectly functional. The savings would be small comfort if the noise drove her straight over the edge.

For the moment, her sanity was saved by the crackle of the intercom.

“How much longer?” came Oscar’s voice. He sounded, alarmed.

“Almost there,” Kay said back. “Was just about to radio in for docking.”

“Make sure they don’t hold us up. Old girl’s barely holding on by a thread down here.”

“Is it that bad?”

“Will be if we don’t get on some solid ground. Soon.”

With those ominous words, the link fell silent, leaving Kay a bit confused if that was permission to speed up. Deciding to obey calm Oscar, she instead switched over to the shortwave.

“Bright Hope Control this is dredging vessel Pacific, approaching east-northeast. Requesting entry clearance at gate four, over.

A brief crackle of static came back, soon followed by the familiar voice of the dock controller.

“Roger Pacific. You’re back early.”

“We had uh, mechanical difficulties.”

“What, you turned it on?”

Kay went to throw her own quip back at the man but a deeply concerning rumble from below decks reminded her of more pressing concerns.

“Sure, whatever, can we come in now?”

“You’re no fun Kay. Entry clearance granted. Proceed on course to the beacon and power down. You know the drill.”

“Second part won’t be a problem. Proceeding on course, out.”

Closing the channel, Kay returned her focus back to driving the ship. Not that much focus was required, she knew every approach around Bright Hope backward, forwards and from every other imaginable angle. Still, given the shape they were in, no harm in properly paying attention this time around.

Keeping the ship as steady as she could, Kay scanned their surrounding until she spotted the docking beacon. It hung from a long cable attached to the underside structure, pulsing steadily to make itself obvious in the gloom. Using her controls, Kay moved them towards it until the light sat roughly above their bow. A bit off center but not a bad approach given what she was working with.

Just as she got them settled into position, the entire ship gave a shudder so powerful that it rattled the pilothouse windows. The engine tried its best to carry on but after a few sputtering coughs, it gave in and fell silent, leaving only the creak of metal behind.

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?” Kay asked over the intercom.

“Uh yeah, that was definitely on purpose, lets go with that,” Oscar replied. “I’m good whenever.”

Kay tried to think of a witty reply for that, but she ultimately came up with nothing. Blowing out a long breath, Kay switched back to the shortwave.

“Bright Hope Control, Pacific in position, ready for pickup.”

“Roger Pacific. Hold onto something.”

Over the noise of the Sea, Kay heard a muted clanking sound begin, quickly growing louder and faster as the mechanism spun up. A klaxon joined in the on the noise, followed soon after by a howl of wind as the gate above them began to slide open. Light poured out from within, kay shielding her eyes as the dazzling display briefly blinded her.

When her eyes adjusted, she looked back to find the gate fully open, exposing the claw of a large crane sitting within. More clanking sounded as the claw lowered towards to them, prongs splaying wide to grip firmly on either side of the Pacific’s hull. Kay’s controls gave a quick beep as pressure sensors confirmed a solid grip and she quickly set the all clear back to Control. Then she held on tight as the crane began to lift them from the Sea.

They rose into the air, slowly at first but with growing speed as the grip was shown to be solid. Soon they cleared the trash entirely, leaving the legs to dangle uselessly from the hull, gyros vainly searching for something to stand on. A few swift commands from Kay had them reeled in and neatly stowed away just in time for them to pass through the open gate and into Bright Hope docks.

The best description Kay had ever been able to come up with for the area was ‘dry dock that had gotten away from them’. A dense mess of ship berths, warehouses, loading platforms and repair facilities, all crammed together underneath the sloping roof above. Parts of it looked stacked on top of one another, taking advantage of every square inch of space they could get away with and even a few that they technically couldn’t.

With such limited space to work with, the docks relied on cranes to move things around. Utterly dominating the back wall, they ranged in size from the small cargo haulers to the mighty ship lifters, one of which currently help the Pacific in its grasp. The same design philosophy as the rest of the docks applied, tracks pressed so closely together that the arms moved past one another with barely a hairsbreadth of clearance.

Cramped as everything was, the docks felt oppressively empty. Most of the berths were empty and aside from the occasional person scurry over the catwalks, there was hardly a soul in sight. It made sense, most of the dredgers wouldn’t be back for hours yet, not while there was still daylight to burn. Kay certainly wouldn’t have been back yet, given a choice, every empty berth a cruel reminder of what they were missing out on by being here.

Eventually, they arrived at the Pacific’s own berth, distinguishable only by its dock code painted on the metal in faded white letters. Coming to s a stop over it, the crane gently deposited the ship into the opening, holding it in place while Kay engaged the clamps to hold them in place. Oscar emerged on deck and quickly ran a lap of the hull, checking to make sure they were secure. With his all clear, Kay switched back to the shortwave.

“All clear, thanks Control.”

“No problem,” Control called back. “Anything else I can do for you? Coffee? Snacks? Selection of fine wines?”

Kay rolled her eyes at the mike. Did he think he was actually being funny with these jokes?

“Nah, we’re good,” Kay said.

“Suit yourself. Have fun fixing that rust bucket.”

“You’re a charmer Control,” Kay said, switching the radio off before he could get another word in.

Leaving the pilothouse, Kay descended to the deck to join Oscar, who already had hold door open wide. The depressingly small amount of stuff within was no less disappointing now than the last time she’d assessed it.

“We’re going to break our spines unloading this without the crane,” Kay said.

Oscar shook his head. “No reason we can’t empty the bins the normal way. And I can start striping the bigger stuff for parts while you go sort out the repairs.”

Kay gave a bitter bark of laughter. “The simplest of tasks then.”

“Hey,” Oscar turned to face her fully. “We’ll fix it. We always do.”

Whatever witticism she’d been intending to throw back at him fizzled at those words. Damn him and his infuriating optimism. Would it kill him to indulge in just a little self-pity? Wallow in some self doubt maybe? At least then there would be some indication of a flawed human being in there, one that would have a reason to keep hanging out with her.

Kay shook her head, trying to refocus. This wasn’t helpful to their current predicament. They had a problem and only one realistic way to solve it, standing around here was just wasting time.

“Yeah, yeah, you have fun with your toys old man,” Kay said, turning towards the gangplank to disembark. “I have a meeting with his majesty.”

*

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2.

Four hours later, Kay was running out of reasons not to scream anyway. Every single load they’d dredged up had contained some form of organic matter, from mold to compost to things Kay would rather not dwell on. The worst of them had been little more than thick masses of putrid slime. She’d still had to go through them for anything worth salvaging, digging her fingers into the soupy mess while trying not to think about how some of it appeared to be moving. Forget a long day, the morning was proving hard enough.

Finishing with the latest offering, Kay hit the switch to dump it back into the Sea. It made sickly slurping sounds as it fell, leaving trails where it clung to the inside of the bin. It was the last straw for Kay, and she began to violently gag, fighting to keep her breakfast down. The last thing she needed was to throw up inside her respirator.

Staggering away from the bin, Kay frantically gestured towards Oscar with a slicing motion across her throat, signaling her need to stop. He nodded, swiftly shutting the crane down and anchoring the claw in place before climbing down to where she stood doubled over.

“You alright?” he asked.

“Need a break, or I’m gonna puke,” she answered, suppressing another flare of nausea.

Oscar gave her a pat on the shoulder, staining his clean glove on the layers of filth that clung to Kay’s oilskin.

“Right, well, it’s lunch anyway. You up for eating or…”

Swallowing a mouthful of bile, Kay gave a shaky nod.

“Just give me a minute.”

“Well don’t take too long, else I’ll eat it all myself.”

Kay nodded again, quickly regretting the motion as she fought back another heave. Smiling in amusement, Oscar gave her another pat on the shoulder before leaving her to suffer in peace. She swayed on her feet for several minutes, forehead pressed against the railing while she waited for the world to stop spinning. The gentle rocking of the deck didn’t help, the churn picking this precise moment to spike in intensity, but Kay was an old hat at this. Eyes shut. Slow, steady breaths. Try not to think about her lot in life. Worked like a charm. When she could finally move without risking the contents of her stomach, Kay rose from the railing and followed Oscar down below decks.

Descending a set of stairs, she entered a hallway so cramped that even her slight frame barely fit. Her shoulders cleared either wall by only inches, becoming even narrower in places where exposed pipes bulged out. Thinking skinny thoughts, Kay moved forward, heading for the cabin door sitting at the far end of the hall. Before reaching it, she paused at a second door to her left, this one labeled with the word ‘HOLD’ in bright yellow letters. Making the snap decision, she unlatched it and stepped through for a look at their haul.

The chamber beyond was downright cavernous, so large that her footsteps echoed off the walls as she crossed the floor. She could stretch out her arms in here, swing if such took her fancy, and never even come close to touching a wall. Over half the space below decks was given over to this single hold, a necessity in the dredging business. They needed somewhere to put everything they dredged up.

Presently it all felt a bit wasted. Barely a quarter of the space was occupied, mostly by a variety of farm equipment they’d collected piecemeal throughout the morning. Poor quality as far as salvage went, everything so badly rusted and warped to the point of barely being worth hauling back. They’d likely end up selling all of it for scrap.

Moving past the larger cargo, Kay looked over the line of industrial storage bins sitting against the wall. A series of chutes snaked out of their tops, connecting them to the sorting area up on deck. This was where all the little bits and pieces she’d been digging out all morning had ended up.

Out of curiosity, Kay popped a bin open to discover a pile of old plastic within, an assortment of bottles, CD’s and various other bits no longer recognizable as whatever the had been. It would be generous to call the bin half full.

Shifting to the next bin, thin one for metals, she found it barely contained enough to cover the floor. Electronics had only scraps, some she suspected were there from yesterday. Rubber and glass were both empty.

Insult to injury, everything stank nearly as bad as when they had pulled it out of the Sea. Bits of compost still clung to almost everything they’d kept, left to fester in a poorly ventilated hold. They’d have to hose everything down once they got back to port.

Closing the bin with more force than strictly necessary, Kay stepped back into the hall and approached the cabin door. She knocked three times before waiting, giving Oscar a chance to hold his breath before she pulled the door open. A gust rushed out as the seal broke, Kay moving quickly to shut the door behind her before too much of foul air could slip in.

As the only passenger cabin the Pacific had, the room beyond had to pull several duties at once. In one corner, a hotplate and small water basin served as makeshift galley. In another, two lockers bolted to the wall served as storage. A chemical toilet and shower curtain were the closest things to privacy they got while aboard. Next to the solitary window, a table served as meeting room, office and communal dining area. The sole luxury item present was an old couch, long ago salvaged from the Sea and press-ganged into service after being disinfected to within an inch of its life. Kay still didn’t entirely trust it was completely sanitary but her aching shins would take whatever comfort they could get at this point.

“Oilskin,” Oscar said as he stirred a pot on the hotplate.

“Yes dad.” Kay shot back, already pulling off the offending garment. She hung it and her respirator on a hook before crossing to the couch and falling into its heavenly embrace. Or at least the mildly more comfortable embrace of under-stuffed cushions and sagging springs.

“Feel better?” Oscar asked, spooning the contents of the pot into two bowls. Kay nodded and accepted one of the bowls from him, finding a generous helping of stew within. A rich brown with just a hint of green, smelling of potatoes, peas and hints of the spices that Oscar could wield like a wizard.

“Eh, passable I guess,” Kay said.

“Yeah, yeah. Eat while it’s hot you little brat.”

Kay did so with enthusiasm, all but inhaling the food in the process. Oscar joined her, choosing to sit on the floor for some reason, eating his own bowl with far less zeal but no less enjoyment. From some hidden compartment, he produced two hunks of bread, keeping one for himself and handing the other to Kay. They ate in silence for a time, broken only by the sounds of chewing and the clinking of cutlery.

“You look in hold?” Oscar eventually asked.

“Yeah,” Kay said. “Kind of a poor showing.”

Oscar shrugged. “I’ve seen worse.”

“That makes it better?”

“You’d rather it be empty?”

Kay gave a bitter bark of laughter. “Maybe. At least then I’d know the universe was screwing with me specifically.”

That comment was left to linger in the air for several minutes as both returned to their meals. Kay’s bowl soon ran empty, leaving only vestiges for her to scoop up with her remaining crust of bread.

“Maybe we should try somewhere else,” Kay said.

Oscar shook his head. “We only got a few hours of daylight left. At least with this patch we know there’s something worth digging for.”

“Don’t use your logic on me human.”

“Am I wrong?

Kay blew out her cheeks in frustration. He wasn’t wrong, of course. They just didn’t have the time to pull up and go looking elsewhere. She just didn’t want to admit it, not relishing the idea of spending four more hours elbow deep in filth.

“We can switch for the afternoon if you want.”

She raised an eyebrow at him in surprise. “You don’t have to-”

“We’ll get more done if one of us isn’t about to spew their guts across the deck. And besides, I saw that muck, you’ve suffered enough.”

Kay chuckled. “You’re aware you’re not helping the dad comparison, right?”

“Alright, I’ll stay in the crane then.”

“Hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves old man.”

“Brat,” Oscar said with a smirk.

*

As promised, Oscar took over sorting duties for the afternoon. Kay wanted to feel sorry about it, she really did, but could only manage a sense of relief. Even through her respirator, she could still detect the faint whiff of compost clawing its way up her nose. An afternoon spent far away from that, better, one where she got to sit down? That was just too tempting to pass up.

Settling into the crane control booth, Kay quickly brought it back to life, prompting only a quiet cough from the engine. Once Oscar signaled his readiness, Kay resumed dredging right where they had left off, releasing the claw and letting it sink into the Sea. The controls shook under her grip, the churn stronger than she remembered it being when they had first arrived. She hoped it wouldn’t get too much worse. The Pacific’s legs could only handle so much.

After the customary handful of seconds, Kay hit the recall and watched as the cable went taunt. The shudder in her controls grew worse as the mechanism fought the churn, struggling to pull the claw free of the Sea. Ultimately the crane eventually won, and the claw burst free of the surface. Kay let out a long breath as she hoisted it up over the deck.

Catching sight of it, Kay was immediately convinced that the universe had indeed decided to dunk on her specifically today. The mass clutched in the claw barely had any organic matter in it, downright sanitary compared to what she’d had to deal with today.

Kay stared at it for a long moment, trying to figure out what the punchline to this no doubt hilarious joke was. Looking to Oscar was no help, providing only a dismissive shrug and gesture for her to get on with it. Somehow Kay resisted the urge to throw it back out of spite and instead dumped it in the bin.

Oscar quickly began to sort, efficiently separating what was worth keeping in the same way Kay had done earlier. He kept far more than he discarded, sizable piles quickly forming at the edges of the bin to be later separated into the appropriate chute. That was a good sign, a very good sigh. Much as the timing annoyed her, she found it difficult to much care as Oscar flashed her the coveted thumbs up of a good dredge.

Hands trembling with anticipation, Kay returned the claw to the same spot and dropped it again. When she hit the recall, a second load emerged with much the same look about it, clean, valuable trash that earned a second thumbs up from Oscar. She went back for a third dredge, then a fourth. By the fifth, Kay was letting herself believe they might finally have hit the jackpot.

On the sixth dredge, Kay let the claw sink deeper, chasing even greater treasures that may lurk below. When this one broke the surface, it brought with it another piece of farm equipment. Some type of plow or planter, Kay neither knew nor particularly cared. What she did care about was its almost exquisite condition.

Unlike the others stowed in the hold, this machine showed almost no sign of rust or damage. They’d have to take it apart to be sure, but such a condition implied the tantalizing possibility of working parts. Working parts that would go for a much higher price than their scrap metal ever could. A very, very good sign.

Grinning from ear to ear, Kay looked over at Oscar. He nodded at her, flashing an entirely unneeded thumbs up to indicate his approval. Kay rolled her eyes at the man’s cheek and set about getting their prize stowed, bouncing in her seat she guided it down into the hold. Once it was tied down, Kay quickly dropped claw back to the same spot again, eager to see what else they could dredge up. More pristine equipment perhaps, maybe something even better. The possibilities made her giddy as she hit the recall.

Things started to go wrong almost immediately. Without warning, the cable suddenly stopped moving, caught on something under the surface. All slack, what little there was, immediately vanished from the cable as winch and churn fought one another for supremacy. The Pacific was caught in the middle, lurching violently to one side as the crane continued trying to pull the claw up.

The sudden motion caught Oscar off guard, Kay watching in horror as he slid helplessly towards the edge. He would have gone straight over had he not been able to grab hold of a railing at the last second. He was left dangling precariously over the edge, scrabbling with his free hand for better purchase and having a hard time finding any.

Swallowing her panic, Kay tired the emergency release. Nothing happened. Either the mechanism was broken or something else was holding the cable in place. Oscar began to slide further, losing what little grip he had and coming ever closer to churning Sea below. He wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer.

Seeing no other option, Kay used her foot to flip open a safety cover and stomped down hard on the pedal within. Terrified it wouldn’t work either, she was relieved to hear a metallic clanking sound, followed the muted boom of the cable being severed.

Instantly all tension was released, so suddenly that the Pacific lurched back in the opposite direction. The motion carried Oscar with it, throwing him hard against the deck. Kay could only hold on for dear life and pray that the ship’s legs would be able to take the strain. For a time everything was creaking, shaking and uncertainty, but the old girl managed to hold on long enough to find stable footing.

As the deck leveled out, Kay sprung from her seat and sprinted towards where Oscar had landed. To her great relief, he was already sitting up by the time she reached him.

“Are you hurt?” she asked, dropping down next to him.

“I’m alright, just a bit tenderized.”

The two of them lapsed in silence after that, simply letting the wave of exhaustion wash over them as the adrenaline wore off. Kay took the time to take stock of the ship. An extensive selection of exciting new metallic groans filled the air, fresh stresses on the Pacific’s already creaking hill. The deck wasn’t entirely level, one of the legs sitting at an awkward angle that would need to be looked at to make sure it wasn’t damaged. Glancing down into the hold, Kay could see that some of the cargo had broken loose, smashing into walls and one another, leaving scuffs and dents in their wake.

But it was the crane that suffered the worst. The arm was badly bent, several struts broken entirely by the strain. From its arm, the end of its severed cable swayed gently in the breeze. Completely disabled. There would be no more dredging today, no more dredging at all until they got the thing replaced.

She turned back to Oscar, finding him turning to face her at the same time.

“Well shit,” Kay said.

*

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1.

The Trash Sea sat calm in the morning gloom. Only a gentle churn disturbed its vast surface, too weak to budge anything but the lightest and smallest of objects. Ahead, Kay watched as a wave of old plastic bottles slowly formed, the churn pushing it up through the surface like a spoonful of thick molasses. It crested quickly, the flimsy mass falling apart under its own weight and scattering bottles in every direction. Each of them held the surface for only a moment longer, quickly dragged back down into the depths, where they would remain until chance saw fit to bring them back to the surface once again.

Similar events played out all around them, the churn pulling a seemingly endless variety of things to the surface. Kay saw waves of rusty tin cans, discarded action figures, splintered wooden furniture and the smashed remains of computer monitors. Off to one side, her eyes were drawn to a wave of paint cans, split open to spreading bright colours onto the surface. These too were quickly swallowed up, pushed asides to make way for what was to emerge next.

Just another day on the Trash Sea. Just as it always had been, just like it probably always to be.

“You’re drifting,” Oscar said.

Looking away from the horizon, Kay glanced over to look at her co-pilot. How he knew anything about their bearing, she had no idea. The man hadn’t even looked up from his console, focused entirely on his task of monitoring the various screens and gauges that controlled the engine. Stooped over like he was, she couldn’t even see his eyes, just the mop of silver streaked red hair atop his head.

“You want to drive old man?” she challenged.

“No, I want you to quit gawking and drive properly.”

Kay gave a mocking scoff, mostly to cover for the fact that she’d just realized he was right. They were off course by a not insignificant margin. As discretely as she could, Kay shifted the controls to set them back on the right track. The Pacific, groaned in protest at the command, incensed at being expected to do actual work. Regardless, the four mechanical legs affixed to the hull got to work, beginning to shift them around inch by crawling inch.

It took nearly ten minutes to complete the course adjustment and fall back into a normal walking rhythm. After a few steps to ensure things were steady, Kay pushed the throttle back up to flank. Immediately the Pacific gave another protest, a violent shudder rattling through the deck. When it persisted for several steps, Oscar swore quietly under his breath.

“Back it off,” he said, rising from his seat. “Pressure’s dropping.”

“The oil again? I thought you fixed that?”

“I repaired it. Clearly its broken again.”

Kay made a strangled sound in the back of her throat. “Why is this ship so old?”

Oscar offered no answer, instead crossing the cramped space of the pilothouse to where his oilskin hung from a hook. Practiced motions had it settled on his shoulders inside of a minute, followed quickly by a respirator over his head.

“You need any help?”

“No, should be an easy enough fix. Just keep us steady, I’ll radio when I’m done.

Kay nodded, taking in a deep breath before Oscar slid the door open. Instantly, a wave of humid foul-smelling air flooded in, so thick that it felt like liquid oil sliding over her skin. Seeking to minimize Kay’s exposure to it, Oscar exited the pilothouse, sliding the door shut behind him with a sharp click. Kay kept the breath held for as long as she could, hoping to give the air purifier time to at least take the edge off. It still tasted like rotten eggs. Doing her best to ignore it, Kay shut down everything save the stabilization gyros and settled in to wait, turning her eyes to resume watching the waves.

No one knew for certain how deep the Trash Sea ran. The detritus of entire generations lay beneath the surface, layer upon layer of discarded things stacked atop one another. It had been the work of no one event or group but instead countless individuals adding to it little by little. What had once been a mere trash heap had grown and expanded until it had become the sprawling behemoth it was today. A vile, stinking blemish on the world that very few went near willingly, let alone entered. Kay had been sailing it for most of her life.

“Alright we’re good,” Oscar’s voice buzzed through the intercom. “Try it.”

“Copy, hold on,” Kay replied, easing the throttle back up to one quarter. The Pacific gave an annoyed groan but obediently fell back into step, legs resuming their forward motion. When no alarms sounded, Kay pushed the throttle up to three quarters, wishing to make up for lost time.

“Easy!” Oscar shouted through the intercom. “Wait for me to get back!”

“Don’t bother, we’re basically there,” Kay sent back. “Go get the crane spun up.”

“You sure?”

“I think I can move us a couple hundred meters on my own. How bad at this do you think I am.”

A pause stretched on, long enough for Kay to glare at the speaker in annoyance.

“Shut up.”

“Didn’t say a thing, heading out.”

“Copy that.”

The connection cut, leaving Kay to focus on steering the ship. Their destination lay just ahead, a section of the Sea where the waves were growing to the size of small hills. A direct result of a stronger churn, able to pull up larger objects from much deeper down. Even as they approached, Kay saw the skeleton of a car burst into view, long since reduced to nothing but rusty framework. Unlike the bottles from before, the car was tough enough to fight the churn, struggling to stay afloat on the uneven surface. It put up an admirable effort but, inevitably, it was dragged down. The Sea did not let things escape so easily.

Kay kept a firm grip on the controls as she steered the Pacific forward into the area. Instantly she felt resistance as the legs stepped down onto the shifting, uneven surface. This was where things got dangerous. The lack of steady ground increased the risk of the legs slipping, potentially tipping it off balance and crashing down into the Sea. In such a state, the Pacific would beno less vulnerable to being dragged under than anything else out here. Any misstep could easily be the end of them.

The thought barely even crossed Kay’s mind as she worked. Practice and instinct guided her hand, driving by feel as much as sight. She wasn’t worried about their chances, having navigated far worse than this many times over. With only a few stumbles, Kay soon had them settled into a relatively stable patch where the gyros could keep them upright without supervision. It left them sat still in the middle of a field of waves, each pulling up a veritable cornucopia of things up from deep below. The perfect ground for dredging.

For all the literal garbage within the Sea, just as much of it sill had value. Metal, paper, plastics, electronics, rubber, treasures of all kinds sitting below the surface. Just waiting for an enterprising individual to dredge them up for sale to the highest bidder. Easy fortunes sitting around for the taking.

Or at least that was the theory. In Kay’s experience, it mostly entailed digging through piles of crap, looking for random bits worth the bother of hauling back to sell as bulk scrap.

Switching the ship over to standby, Kay stood and began donning her own oilskin. The garment was as old as the Pacific, wear and tear making it both look and feel like a burlap sack. Her respirator was little better, its mouthpiece infused with the smell of old sweat, seasoning every breath she took with the aroma. She pulled it over her head anyway, knowing it to be better than the oppressive musk that washed back over her as she stepped outside.

Even stabilized, the Pacific’s deck still rocked gently from the churn, forcing Kay to widen her stance for balance. She took her time crossing to midship, quickly catching sight of Oscar where he sat at the crane. Under his direction, the device began to rise out of the deck, unfolding like a metal wing. As Kay took her position next to the sorting bin, winches squealed to life, pulling on the arm and twisting it out over the side of the ship. From the end dangled the grabbing claw on a length of steel cable. When everything had settled into position, Oscar turned in his seat to look over at Kay.

“Fortune and fillet!” he shouted.

“Pennies and porridge!” Kay shouted back.

It was an utterly silly little ritual, one that her father had started years ago by accident. He’d insisted one day that they were going to find something so valuable that they’d be having fish for dinner that night. One meal of reheated breakfast later had provided the rest of the phrase, a reminder to never get ahead of themselves. Kay hated it but couldn’t bring herself to let it go.

At the press of a button, the claw dropped from the crane into the churn below. It was immediately caught and pulled down, swiftly disappearing beneath the surface with nothing but the cable to mark where it had gone under. Oscar allowed it to sink for several seconds before hitting the recall, cable going taunt as it hauled the claw back up. A shallow dive, testing to see if it was worth the time investment to dredge deeper.

The claw broke the surface, grasping a full load of trash between its pincers. To Kay’s dismay she could see large chunks of organic matter threaded throughout. A bad sign for two reasons. First, it meant the spot was likely no good, and second, it meant she had to go through that disgusting slop to make sure.

Somehow it was even worse than she was expected when Oscar dumped the load into the bin with a wet plop. Kay spent a moment just staring, watching as the semi-liquid compost slowly oozed towards the corners. The smell was bad enough to overpower her respirator, the acrid stanch burning the inside of her nose.

“So uh, want to switch?” Kay shouted up at Oscar.

“Oh no, I did it the last three days. It’s your turn to sort.”

Grumbling, Kay stepped up to the edge of her bin, bracing as she pushed her hands into the muck. It was just as disgusting as she’d expected, warm to the touch and adhering to her gloves despite their wax coating. Trying not to think about what exactly this stuff had once been, Kay sifted through the more solid bits, doing her best to assess without touching anything.

Most of it was crap, worth less than nothing, certainly not the time it had taken to haul it up. A few bits looked more promising, scraps of metal and plastic, but they were the dregs at best, nothing to imply anything more valuable waited below. She kept them regardless, tossing the scraps into the appropriate bins. Dregs or no, little bits could add up.

Judging the load sorted, Kay signaled Oscar to continue by flashing him a thumbs down. He nodded and began to maneuver the crane back over the edge, aiming for a different spot in the churn to continue the search. Kay spent the time using her own controls to tilt the sorting bin over on its side, dropping the worthless contents back into the Sea. Some of it stuck and she had to use a scrapper to push it the rest of the way. She had to fight her gag reflex as the last dredges dribbled away.

Just as she got the bin back level, the next load arrived for her perusal. Somehow this one was even worse than the first, the slop so thick that it barely moved from where it fell, encasing every solid object within truly vile cocoons. Kay wanted to scream but managed to dial it back to an extended sigh.

It was going to be a long day.

*

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