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Davis sat alone upon a lightly cushioned and squeaky aluminium bench in the workshop's threadbare break room. True to its locale, the room and its contents were every bit as recycled as anything to come from the workshop. The furniture came from a retired passenger train, appliances from a decommissioned liner. Even the kitchen sink overflowing with nutrigel-stained mugs had once been part of a first-generation Bridge habitation module.
Davis focused his attention on the infoscreen propped up on the table, the image of his contact taking up most of the display as he spoke into the headset of his wearable. "So anyway, to cut a long story short, I'm now one of Flora's foster caregivers."
Kingi laughed derisively over the comm in response. "Hah!" His telepresence swayed lightly as the ship he piloted rocked gently in the background "Ya always had a soft spot for sob stories".
"And so it is true." Davis agreed, shrugging. His arms were bared and the upper half of his blue and orange overalls had been tied at the waist. "It's going ok so far though. We got a dollhouse made for her to celebrate. My neighbour Kalem owed me a favour for that shipment of hardwood we secured."
"Customs sure were a pain in the ass." Kingi grumbled.
"Biosecurity isn't just an afterthought here. We don't want our bubbles of biodiversity to be compromised." Davis said. "But yeah, the quarantine and sterilisation weren't taking any chances."
"No wonder why ya treat quality timber like a precious metal. I'd almost be tempted to get into cargo shipping if a more reliable exporter could be found. Only being able to trade when they need something ain't a secure business model though"
Davis agreed. "Anyway, she was pretty happy with it. Put the dollhouse up on her bedside cabinet next to her old emergency beacon. I heard her chatting away with her dolls pretty contently, so she seemed to approve of the whole setup."
"Still hanging on to that old beacon, eh?" Kingi shrugged.
"It's not unusual to feel attached to something that saved your life." Davis said nonchalantly. He thought of the co-worker whose helmet had been smashed by a large falling bolt - they had walked away unscathed when the same incident would have killed someone who was unprotected. The Smashed Helmet had become something of a trophy, being passed around to workers who completed their onsite safety induction training. Here, it was reborn as a visceral reminder of the necessity of safety precautions.
"Well, as long as she doesn't demand I save her a second time, she can do whatever the hell she wants with it." Kingi said bluntly.
"I'm pretty sure she'll stay put." Davis said. "So how are things going on the open ocean?"
"Well, we've been steady with our salvage ops. For every ship we dredge up, two more sink. Good for business, but sucks to be them."
"Where do you think they're all coming from?" Davis wondered, a crease appearing in his grimy brow.
"Mate, there's a whole lotta unflagged boats tryin' to cross maritime borders lately, could be from anywhere that has a coastline."
"I thought the EEZs were pretty tightly patrolled these days?"
"It's like a blockade in some places. Near impossible to ship people and unauthorised cargo in and out of most Lander nations."
Davis took him at his word - Kingi would likely have first hand experience on the matter, but it was better not to ask. "But that doesn't stop people trying" Davis figured.
"Yup. Smaller boats can sometimes give the authorities the slip, but anything much bigger than a dinghy's like a floating target."
"You'd have to be pretty desperate to even try at this point"
"Got that right."
"What do you think they're after?"
"I'd say most want to try their luck in some other Lander nation. Some are wantin' to join the Armada, but we sure as hell don't have the ships or resources to spare. Others are aimin' for The Bridge, or even the polar colonies."
"The Ocean's always bluer in another sea."
"Yup. But gettin' there by boat is dodgy as hell, and the overland routes are all filled with government checkpoints - even militias lookin' to rough up so-called deserters and invaders. That lil' friend of yours's luckier than she realises. Oughta go buy a lottery ticket, that one." Kingi remarked.
"She's fortunate, that's for sure. Is there anything else we should know?"
"Well, dunno if ya heard, but there's a food crisis brewing back on the land. Crops being hammered by droughts and wildfires or something, so people are havin' to choose between risking starvin' on land or risking drownin' in the sea."
Davis shook his head. It was a kind of choice he hoped he'd never have to make. "You know, the tech exists to produce and share enough basic nutrition to feed tens of billions of people, regardless of weather, disease, war, or natural disasters. The real problem is more a matter of distribution and politics."
"Ya think they don't want your help?"
"I know it" Davis said without any satisfaction. "We've offered aid to other countries - both food and nutritional infrastructure like bioreactors, genomes, molecular blueprints and synthesisers. It's always been declined. There's no official explanation, but... Reading between the lines suggests accepting it would count as recognition of the Marinabridge government and our legitimacy as a country."
"An opportunity for bootleg nutrigel exports then?" Kingi rubbed his hands together.
Davis smirked at his associate, as opportunistic as ever. "Wouldn't be the worst thing you've ever done - but you didn't hear it from me"
"Righto. I gotta get going, but I'll see ya round."
"Bountiful tides." Davis waved.
"Yeah, you too."
Davis switched off the transmission and looked toward the the nearby wall. The beige paint was peeling away and would need another coating at some point, but the digital clock hanging upon it was still in good condition. 3:30 pm. He tapped and swiped through the interface for his home's contact number. He still had a few minutes of his break to spare, and reasoned that Nan and Flora would be home by now. He hit the call button. A few moments of waiting passed, and he was greeted by a scene of Flora excitedly holding up their home's infoscreen with both hands. "Hi Davis!" she said cheerily as beams of afternoon light streamed into the lounge.
"Hey sunbeam. Is Nan there too?"
Flora looked to the side and spun the screen around to show Nan sitting beside her, watching intently through her thick glasses.
"Great. Hi Nan!"
Nan lifted a weak hand from her current knitting project to wave back at Davis.
"How are my girls doing?"
"Oh, we are just superb, aren't we dear?" Nan replied. 
"Yeah, we are. Did you like my seabread?" Flora asked earnestly.
"I... Yeah, it wasn't bad. Keep practicing and you might become a baker when you grow up."
Flora grinned. Davis wasn't lying - even though the dry bun he'd had for lunch had been crumbly and left an oddly sweet aftertaste, it had warmed his heart to know it had been baked by her and gifted to him.
"School was fun today as well" Flora said. "We played a card game about birds, and played micro-soccer, and read a story about dinosaurs, and went up on the roof garden!"
"Great. All ready for the field trip tomorrow then?" 
Flora considered that for a moment, stroking her chin and looking away.
"You'll be fine, dear." Nan reassured her. "You're in good hands with Ms Laurent. We used to run some great trips back in the day. Brings back memories." Nan sighed.
"Keen to unretire from teaching too?" Davis teased.
"Ha, not even a little" Nan said with a hearty laugh. "One little one is plenty for me these days" She ruffled Flora's immaculately braided head affectionately.
"I'll keep that in mind." Davis said. "I've still got a few things to finish off here before I call it a day. Should be home in time for dinner though."
"Great. We're making kelp stew with chives - one of your favourites" Nan said. Davis smiled at the prospect. A look of suspicion briefly crossed Flora's face.
"I'm looking forward to it," Davis said, changing the subject. "And as for my role, we're almost done with the boat's stocktake. My pal Braden is giving it a second look. We should be able to get a reasonable price for the parts and materials once we're done deconstructing it, and a share of that will be yours to spend, Flora."
"Oh," Flora's head tilted. "I thought you were going to just... crush it into little pieces, like a tin can."
"Not yet," Davis said with a chuckle. "There's a fair number of different bits that all need different things done to them to reuse the materials, so we gotta take those apart as best we can, before we send the remains to the parts market, shredder, or solar forge."
"Oh." Flora said, her eyes evasive. 
"Yeah, it's a bit more work for us, but it means we can keep existing parts and materials in circulation, saving on further manufacturing."
"We know you'll do a good job, Davis." Nan said. "We'll see you tonight."
"Thanks. I'll see you guys then. Bye" Davis waved to the pair and watched them wave back before he ended the call.
Davis put the infoscreen back on its dock and got to his feet. He undid the sleeves tied at his waist and slipped into the upper part of his overalls, zipping up the front. Davis grabbed his work helmet off the shelf by the door, putting it on without a second thought. He made his way back to the workshop floor, passing posters of the Ten R's of sustainability that lined the hallway and guided their mission. Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Retain, Repair, Repurpose, Rebuild, Resettle, Recycle, Regenerate. Every action had its purpose in minimising the impact of human activities on the world, and conversely maximising the value placed on whatever resources humanity could sustainably harness. And it was here, in this workshop and in thousands more just like it, that one person's trash was being transformed into another person's treasure.
The clanking of ratchets and whirring of drills pierced the still air as Davis emerged from the hallway. A shower of sparks from a distant welder cast shadows of half-dismantled machinery and motors far across the grimy floor. Overhead cranes moved objects of several tons, lifting them from doorways to workbays attended by crews in matching high-vis overalls and helmets. Teams worked on all manner of projects befitting the busy reutilisation workshop - repairs, dismantling, modifications, materials salvage, repurposing, upgrading and upcycling. Vehicles, appliances, electronics, machinery, power tools - each had their own sector dedicated to the tasks involved in maximising their reutilisation.
Autons loaded with sorted scrap metal distributed their cargo by size and material into an assortment of large skips. Irreparably damaged steel paneling was fed through a high-torque rotary shredder, breaking it down into manageable shards destined for reforging. Pneumatic presses crushed shredded metal offcuts and chaff into cubes for convenient storage and transport, bundling them into bales wrapped in shiny thick foil. It could be almost humbling to imagine everything that these nondescript pieces of metal and composite may have once been, and the many more things they were yet to become.
Davis passed a young colleague working his way through a stack of old electronics. "How's that e-waste treating you, Blake?" he asked. Wires had been peeled of their protective sheathes and wound onto spools, shattered screens removed and stored inside a wide bin, and an array of circuit boards and computer chips sorted into neatly labelled containers. Some items could be salvaged with some light repairs, but others would be kicked further down the Ten R's hierarchy until they reached the endpoint of materials recovery.
His colleague looked up from the workbench in the electronics sector and replied "It's going pretty good. There's half a periodic table in here. Hard to believe people would throw this stuff away."
Davis agreed with a nod as he walked past. "Keep an eye out for some ruthenium, then. We need more for the catalytic converters."
"Sure thing" Blake replied, peeling open a damaged infoscreen. Davis left him to his task of extracting the valuable metals and circuitry within the broken device, and continued travelling towards one of the vehicle bays.
Fibre-optic skylights were supplemented with arrays of LEDs that cast golden rays upon shiny metallic shelves. Rapidly twirling extractor fans pulled away acrid scents of nearby soldering work and freshly oiled machinery that hung in the air. The workshop hummed and glowed with the new life being bestowed upon reutilisation projects big and small. Davis soon encountered the coworker he had asked for a second opinion on his own current project.
"Hey Braden, how's the boat looking?"
Braden was a gruff and bulky mechanic in his late fifties - technically a founder, though he had been much too young at the time to remember the Declaration of Nationhood nor the turmoil either side of it. He wore the same style of overalls as Davis, but tailored a few sizes larger around the chest and arms. 
"Well, it's like you said." Braden began, with a scratch of his short, greyed and receding hair. "Most of the easily accessible parts were long gone, even before it set sail." Braden handed over the infoscreen he had been holding before continuing. "Still, we have some real potential with this wreck. Should be able to make a decent return on it, even without all the busted and missing components."
"Let's hope so. What have we got?"
"Well, the hull's about one-point-six ton of aluminium - should be able to get a good deal on it once it's taken apart. The rest of it isn't too valuable, but that hull alone should more than cover the acquisition and decommissioning costs."
"Any buyers in mind?" Davis asked, reflecting on the hull's material. Aluminium was certainly a remarkable substance. Lightweight with a high strength-to-mass ratio, it was also ductile, resistant to corrosion, and easily recyclable. There had been a brief era in the 1800s where the newly-discovered metal had been more valuable than gold, leading to anecdotes of aristocrats commissioning aluminium dinnerware and monuments in order to flaunt their wealth. As newer refining techniques and mass production turned it into a widespread and affordable commodity, it rapidly became essential for applications in need of its many useful qualities - including shipping, aeronautics, electronics, construction, and even bridges.
"Well... Civ-Eng are always on the lookout for lightweight materials for their refurbishment programmes. Lighten the load, as they say." It was as if Braden had read Davis's mind.
"They sure do." Davis considered that for a moment. There were always ongoing calls for Bridgers to be considerate of the weight of anything sizeable brought onto The Bridge. Heavy objects and materials were taxed harshly upon their arrival to help pay for maintenance of The Bridge. The civil engineers had always managed to upgrade the load-bearing infrastructure well before accumulation could threaten the integrity of the colossal structure. The Transoceanic Bridge had originally been built to withstand the simultaneous weight of two-thirds of the world's cargo, but one had to wonder just how many additional struts could be bolted on to the thing. Eventually, the diminishing returns of material physics would render further upward expansion impossible. It was a long-term worry, though - one that Davis preferred not to entertain when he had more pressing matters immediately before him.
With the wreckage in front of the two engineers finally starting to give way to salvageable parts and reusable materials, Davis spared a thought for the final voyage of this doomed machine. No one should have been left on this boat, certainly not alone, and least of all a child. What were those smugglers thinking, putting a vessel like this one in The Ocean? It wasn't something he expected to find an answer to, but a careful postmortem of the boat could perhaps offer some clues. He knew that boats were sometimes scuttled for the sake of insurance fraud if they weren't considered valuable for any other use. But why would they leave someone behind on such a vessel? And with a beacon too? Davis pondered. A knot formed in his stomach as he considered whether the operators of this black market sortie were merely running two scams in tandem, not caring if the boat sank before its passenger could be rescued when they had been paid in advance either way.
"You'll notice the Bilge pump's missing" Braden said, drawing Davis back to the present. "Freshwater tank, hydraulics, lighting, anything that wasn't welded in has vanished - Not that what remains has fared much better." He continued. "Quite a lot of corrosion around the edges, not enough to completely compromise structural integrity, but it wouldn't pass an inspection by a long shot."
Davis nodded at the summary, reading the mechanical report on the infoscreen. "What's this about the ballast tanks?"
"Jammed shut, essentially empty."
"This thing must have been pretty unstable on the waves then? It had no real cargo weighing it down besides a single passenger"
"Likely would have capsised if it didn't also have a small leak in the hull."
"A leak? What do you mean?"
"A bit of water trapped in the hull can provide a ballast force. The sloshing around is far from ideal, but it can be better than nothing. You ever hear about Moriori canoes?"
"No, never heard of them. I'm not much of a sailor"
"They're an Indigenous tribe from islands in the east of New Zealand. They built a sort of canoe-raft which wasn't fully watertight, made of reeds. It was presumed by outsiders that the people were just technologically primitive and lacking in more suitable natural resources, but it turns out that the water that made its way into their boats had a stabilising effect in rough waters."
Davis pondered this information for several seconds. Flora was sounding ever more fortunate to be alive - she had been stranded in a busted boat, missing vital components, with a hull that was just flooded enough to counter the failing ballast tanks, yet still watertight enough not to sink immediately. Having an emergency beacon and being within range of a passing independent salvage ship had been her salvation on top of all this. Davis had dismantled boats before, but the only ones he'd seen in worse condition than this one had all been recovered from the bottom of the ocean. He felt a sinking feeling again, but couldn't quite put his finger on the issue.
"You said it was found with a passenger?"
"Yeah. My foster kid"
"Oof, lucky kid. Surviving this old wreck, then getting to live with you."
Davis waited for the inevitable joke at his expense.
"...If that were me, I think I'd rather take my chances with the boat"
"Oh, har har" Davis laughed with weapons-grade sarcasm.
"Come on, lighten up crewster. All lingering questions aside, it seems like things worked out well for everyone in the end. Kingi gets fed, kid finds a home, we get a paycheck, and a customer gets a ton of metal. No hard feelings."
"For now, at least." Davis said. He sighed, uncertain. Taking another look at the infoscreen, he swiped through the inventory of the boat's components and their status, as if he would find answers there.
"What's wrong? Don't you think it's pretty fortunate?" a molecule of concern lingered in the sandblaster voice of the older man. 
"I'm... not sure what I think." Davis said, handing back the infoscreen. "It is pretty remarkable how all this came together just right." 
"Well, don't think too hard, you might break something." Braden advised. "It's probably just survivorship bias." he gently kicked the side of the boat for effect. "Boats like this hunk of junk sink every day while trying to cross the sea. The ones that actually make it are usually going to be the few which had a fortunate convergence of factors. Take one in isolation and it'll look like an implausible coincidence, but put it in context with all the rest that failed under differing circumstances... "
"So... it's only natural that the luckiest few will be the only successful ones. The ones that weren't taken out by the numerous possible risks."
It was synchronicity, not conspiracy. So why couldn't Davis bring himself to simply dismiss his nagging feeling that suspicion could be justified. "I hope I'm just being paranoid," he said, "but I think there's a chance we might find something worthy of further investigation here. Though, I can't yet imagine what that might be."
Braden shrugged. "Well, either way it seems like this deconstruction just got a little more complicated. You're welcome to take another closer look if you need to."
"Yeah," Davis agreed, sighing. "I'll do that." he shook his head.
"Ruined your plans, I take it?"
"Yeah... Dammit, I promised ten minutes ago that I'd be home for dinner tonight."
"Take a night off then, if you've got the leave saved up."
"No," Davis sighed. "I think I should take a closer look. If there's more to the boat than we first thought... I, of all people, should know about it. For Flora's sake."
"Alright. You can take it from here then?" Braden began to busily swipe through his task list before he even got an answer.
"Yeah. Thanks for sharing your expertise, Braden."
"Yeah, no worries. See you tomorrow?"
"Yeah... Right after I drop the kid off at school." Davis allowed his concerns to melt away momentarily as he recalled the upcoming school event. "Tomorrow's field trip day."
As Braden left, Davis utilised the scaffolding that had been erected around the immobilised boat to climb inside. The hull had long since been drained, the hot dry air of the workshop wicking away any remaining water. A slight crust of salt residues would be all that remained of the inundation of the previously-flooded compartments, which were still mostly inaccessible. Davis didn't quite know what he was looking for, but he anticipated that it might not reveal itself until he had taken the boat apart, piece by piece, and could closely examine anything that seemed out of place. What are you hiding from me? He wondered about the boat anxiously, powering up an angle grinder and slicing into the outer edge of the boat's decking. Sparks rebounded off the decking and deflected off Davis's fireproof protective overalls, goggles and helmet. He was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery - but whether that would be by tonight or within a week's time was a question that only this mysterious condemned vessel could answer.
What are you hiding? He thought again as, for a split second, the final passenger of the boat flickered into his mind. He stopped his angle grinder for a pause as he banished that possibility from his consciousness. No - he would get his answer, and whatever suspicion had moments ago wandered into his psyche uninvited would be exposed as a mirage. Flora was the victim in all of this, and now that she had a new life with him, it was hardly fair or reasonable to suspect there could be more to her story than that. Davis shook his head, powered up the angle grinder again, and got back to work.
He didn't get home in time for dinner. Nor had he found anything conclusive in the first layer of decking he had peeled off the top of the boat. A double strike, he thought gloomily as he pushed lukewarm kelp stew around in a bowl, back at his apartment. He likely wouldn't find anything more damning in the bottom of the boat than he would in the bottom of his stew, so what had come over him? What if there was nothing to find, and he was wasting his time and worrying needlessly? What if there was something, but he was going about this all wrong? What if he didn't like the answer, whatever it may be? He set his dinner bowl aside for a moment while he considered the conundrum.
Flora had already been put to bed by the time he'd finally gotten home, but it wouldn't hurt to check on her. Davis quietly slid her bedroom door open and peeked his head inside, a shaft of golden hallway light beaming in around his silhouette. He was about to turn and leave after catching a glimpse of Flora tucked away in her bed, but her yawning alerted him that she was still awake. He gently crept inside, pacing to the side of her bed. "Hi Flora" he said in a half-whisper.
Flora rubbed her dark, sleepy eyes with one hand, her other wrapped tightly around her favourite soft crochet doll. "Hi... Davis" she said with a yawn.
"Just... wanted to say good night" Davis lied.
"Goodnight then." Flora said, rolling over, half-asleep in a mound of soft blankets.
Davis took a breath. "You know, you can talk to us about anything you need to. If... anything's bothering you..." You're bothering her, a voice inside him retorted.
"Oh. I'm ok though. Thanks" Flora waved a hand goodbye, and he took the hint. Davis closed the door once more and left Flora to her dreams. He hoped that she, at least, would sleep easy tonight.

Submitted: May 12, 2022

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