Part 1: The Christmas Bloom
outsiders illustration
Illustration: Jake Keeler

Carter tucked the denseweave up under his goggles to be sure that the bridge of his nose was covered. The sun was a mean one today. It had been since the Christmas Bloom, twelve years past.

They'd launched the skiff from the scavenger swarm's makeshift boat ramp, just shy of mile marker 408 where Interstate 40 slips into the mid-Atlantic, and headed towards the city. Carter hadn't felt entirely comfortable leaving the truck and trailer so close to the operation, but Kyle had assured him that his new security system would blow the whole rig sky high if anyone messed with it. The bright orange Mutual Destruct logo and legal disclaimers were clearly visible on both sides of the pickup and the heavy charges, enough to scorch a fifty-yard blast pattern, were plain to see in the bed. Even the scavies weren't crazy enough to fuck with that. At least that was the theory.

It felt good to get out on the water. After being cooped up in the RDU TaoZon Corp distribution complex for months, Carter had jumped at Kyle's insistence that they get out today. Some time on the deck of the 2 Little 2 Late was just what he needed. The forty-eight hours on, twenty-four off shifts spent coding and monitoring the byzantine pick/pack/ship algorithms were killing him. His eyes felt permanently crossed from staring at computer screens and his nerves jangled from the company-supplied stay-sharp pharmaceuticals. The hiss of the wake and the soft purr of the electric outboard were the perfect antidotes to Carter's shack nasties. That's what Grandpa had called them, shack nasties. Back when the shack nasties weren't just part of everyday life.

It was Grandpa who had introduced him to fly fishing, though Carter hadn't taken to it right away. He'd grown up more familiar with the bustle of Chicago Metro, hard on Lake Michigan, and the comforting, womb-like squeeze of the urban complex around him. The steady heartbeat of humanity. But that pulse had developed a disturbing arrhythmia and when the TaoZon gig took him further south, against the flow of the general population, he'd gone in search of the steadier beat that the old man had once tried to reveal to him. It hadn't been easy to find.

Kyle put the skiff on plane and they skipped along the submerged highway bed, leaving it only to avoid the occasional elevated overpass or scavy barge. The scavengers were busily moving up and down the corridor between their base near the boat ramp and the USS North Carolina, currently lying on its side near the Castle Hayne exit. The battleship had been lifted from its memorial park moorings as the icecaps collapsed, then was pushed inshore, capsized, and beached by Hurricane Yvette a few years afterwards. It was now a colossal deteriorating hornet's nest, mottled gray, swarming with scavy activity, resonating with the hive hiss of acetylene torches and the pounding of hammers and compressors. They gave it a wide berth. Just the same, Kyle reached up under the gunnels and loosened the wraps on the hundred-round Akmatic that hung with the 8wts. The gun was illegal, though everyone had one. It would be a pea-shooter compared to the firepower that the scavies had tucked away but Kyle would go down swinging, if it came to that. The hive paid them no notice.

Once clear of the battleship, Kyle killed the motor and scanned the southern horizon, his bare arms and face glistening with sweat and salt spray. Carter envied that exposure. Carter was covered from head to toe in his denseweave. Today's UV would have fried him. Most days' would. Even with the shielding, he'd still need an E50 booster when he got back to the complex. He'd have exceeded his fifty hours of exposure. His hand moved unconsciously to the injection site on his hip. E50s hurt like hell, but lengthened the odds against melanoma. For most it took years to accumulate fifty hours out from under the bubble. Many never did. This would be Carter's second in nine months.

But Kyle didn't have to worry about layering, tracking his hours, or the discomfort of the E50s. Kyle had real money and had undergone the permanent, single-dose skin cancer vaccine, a treatment stumbled upon during the development of non-surgical face-lifting techniques. The inadvertent intersection of modern medicine's two major research initiatives, cancer and cosmetics. Kyle could handle most outside exposure as long as he kept his eyes protected. The downside of the one-time treatment was that his skin now bore a permanent jaundiced yellow shade, like an old, deep bruise, his lips almost purple. That morbid pallor set him apart from everyone else, branding him instantly an outsider. Kyle didn't care. When you have real money you don't have to.

Carter had never asked Kyle where his bankroll came from. Resources like Kyle's usually came with some level of dubiety and knowledge bore liability. Legality and morality were slippery concepts and the serious profits were realized where their footing was least certain. Carter steered clear. A day on a casting platform was more valuable than satisfying his curiosity. Grandpa once said something about the close examination of gift horses. But then Grandpa had said a great many things during those lazy summers on the homestead, most of which made little sense at the time to young Carter. And even the lessons Carter had grasped were inapplicable these days. The Bloom had changed everything.

Christmas Eve, Carter's senior year at Tech, as if a switch had been flipped, Greenland's permafrost gave way to the warming environment and the tundra exploded with color. Flowers unseen for millennia blossomed wild and fragrant, exotic grasses grew at phenomenal rates, and ancient insects emerged to buzz and crawl around the new Eden. The Church announced it a Christian miracle and proclaimed it proof that God still existed. Sanctuaries filled. But by New Years Day it became clear that the miracle was not the work of any benevolent deity. All warm-blooded life in the region – fox, reindeer, polar bear, man – began to hemorrhage and die, torn apart by the prehistoric pathogens that had also been dormant deep in the frost. Borders were closed. No one went in. No one came out.

But the real surprise was the plume of gasses that had been either been trapped under the ice and permafrost or were mysteriously cold-brewed from an unknown natural recipe. Environmental science, long pushed into the shadows and now resembling autopsy more than research, had no ready answers as the gas went straight to the ozone and began poking holes in the earth's UV shield. No one knew exactly how or why depletion had been so swift and efficient but it was begrudgingly acknowledged that what comes out of Pandora's climate box often defies explanation. Untreated long-term sun exposure became deadly and the gossamer shields, thin as soap bubbles, began going up, floating high above main population centers.

Kyle found what he was looking for, though there wasn't much to see. A few scattered cell towers, long-stripped clean of their electronics by the scavies, poked their tops above the dark swells and a half-dozen islands of discarded plastics floated here and there. He re-keyed the outboard and swung to starboard, leaving the interstate's channel and heading toward the heart of the city. He grinned. Carter did too, though it wasn't apparent through his sun protection. If the stories were true ...

Continue to Part 2 of Outsiders.