Part 2: The Arrival
outsiders illustration jake keeler
Illustration: Jake Keeler

This is Part 2 of Outsiders. You can find Part 1 here.

Carter met Kyle, the first time, while chasing down a glitch in the drone deployment module of TaoZon's two-hour-delivery system. The code was fairly straightforward but the storage and network bandwidth that it was consuming seemed excessive. Digging around the user interface, he found a back door to an old processor, an obsolete code repository, that was supposed to be idle but that showed a slow, steady ripple of activity. Carter had discovered URTH.

URTH, Carter figured out, was a hacked xchat partition that was being unwittingly hosted in TaoZon's hardware, providing a dark web resource for fanatic environmental political discourse and doomsday angst. Open discussion of the environment had long been banned but had found quiet, illicit pockets here and there around the net. Dubbed URTH by its participants, the User's Road To Hell, it was a bootleg outpost frequented by outsiders and the most radically pessimistic. Carter's first instinct was to expose the hack but, just before making the call, two words in the storage dump caught his eye. Fly fishing. Further digging uncovered an obscure little thread where a handful of outsiders claimed to still be practicing the arcane sporting practice. Carter, remembering Grandpa, tumbled down the rabbit hole and landed on Kyle. The hack went unreported.

Kyle slowed the skiff once again and pulled a folded printout from inside the center console. It was a scan of a decades-old map of the city that he twisted this way and that, trying to align it with what little he could see ahead of them. Real maps were archaic, but necessary. The skiff's navigation system had been rendered useless ten years earlier when all GPS transmissions were encrypted for exclusive use by government, military, and TaoZon applications, ostensibly to take the teeth out of the plethora of cheap targeting apps that had enabled every two-bit militia or lone whack job with a drone to make their statement with a bang. In truth, the satellite feeds were getting a bit flakey anyway, what with the steadily increasing electrical disturbances and not-so-sporadic dense atmospheric activity. Cell coverage in the complexes satisfied the rank and file so the loss of satellite positioning had received little notice. Except, of course, on URTH.

It was in URTH, that the rumors of mass species migrations had begun. Whispers of immense refugee schools following the shifting thermoclines, being pushed by storm-stirred currents and driven by pollution cells the size of states. Third-hand scavy stories of seas thick with desperate life, escaping steadily north. Outsider fairy tales. Real info from what remained of Florida and the far southern seaboard was hard to come by. The snowbirds, and most everyone else, had returned permanently north, repopulating the Iron Belt, revitalizing the Cleveland and Detroit complexes, filling the bubbles. But for more than a year now Carter and Kyle had been digging. Carter covertly diverted TaoZon supercomputer cycles. Kyle provided meteorological models and data that could only have been obtained from behind industrial strength government firewalls, prompting Carter to suspect that this skill set was the root of his wealth. Together they chased every whisper, scrutinized each sketchy report, plotted each smidgen of gossip. They were obsessed.

Grandpa had been obsessed too. Carter remembered him talking with great excitement of fishing in the islands, back when the islands were habitable. Most of them were gone or scoured to featureless atolls by the non-stop storm traffic blasting along the South Atlantic hurricane express lane. Grandpa lived to see it happen and it broke his heart. Carter slid his hand into his coverall's pocket and fingered the Bahamian ten-cent piece that Grandpa had given him, a talisman he didn't completely understand but that he kept as precious, usually hidden deep in his sleeping pad. Hard currency was outlawed and only acknowledged on the blackest of markets. Cash and crime were synonymous. Despite the fact that its provenance no longer existed, the dime could put Carter in some deep legal shit. Just the same, he'd risked carrying it today, hoping that it would bring them good luck.

Kyle grunted with satisfaction, returned the printout to the console, and slowly pushed the skiff forward. Carter knew what he was looking for. Just north of what had previously been downtown there was a rise in the topography, labeled on the old map as Forest Hills. The "hills" now formed a shallow flat and was cleared on three sides by the sites of a submerged golf course, a shopping mall, and a mixed-use park. A hundred acres of elevated expanse overlooking the old skyline, now shin deep in brine and scoured clean by hurricane traffic. The sun was straight overhead when Carter tied off the bow on the rusting leg of a child's swing set, a tortured piece of pipe rising out of the shallow waters. Kyle pulled the fishing gear out from under the gunnels.

A mix of old and new. Rods. Reels. Fly line. Museum pieces and precise magnetic resonance replications, identical to the originals except printed in materials more suited to the elevated saltwater acidification. And flies. Extinct crab and shrimp patterns made with real feathers. Real feathers. For the hundredth time, Carter wondered where Kyle had acquired this arcane and expensive gear but he swallowed the question. They checked their knots one last time and the two settled in, Kyle sitting high on the poling platform and Carter, cross-legged, on the front deck, an antique (or a replica, it was hard to tell them apart) across his lap. They waited.

Grandpa had always said that the most boring thing about fishing was the act itself. He believed that it was everything else surrounding the endeavor that made it interesting. It was the people and the places and the deep, submissive appreciation of the natural world that resonated within the true fisherman. Angling was just an excuse. That had been easy for Grandpa to say. He'd done it in the good times. He didn't have to carry an AK or booby-trap his truck. No sneaking around the dark corners of the web to find others that shared his passions. The rain didn't raise blisters and he could wade, unprotected, in most waters. Maybe even drink some. And he didn't have to bury himself in denseweave, endure E50 boosters, or turn his skin yellow to avoid the sun that now beat unmercifully down on Carter as he sat on the sizzling deck. It was brutal being a fisherman; an outsider. The old man hadn't a clue. Grandpa's "everything else" pretty well sucked these days.

Hours, they waited. Carter, half asleep, adjusted his sun shielding one more time, fearing his nose was probably toast, and he heard Kyle muttering from the platform as he tweaked the parameters of the model on a pad that had also been hidden in the console. It was no use. They should have known it was all fantasy, that there was no truth any longer. Just another pile of "Moscow" on the net. The info trolls would have a good laugh if they could see them, sitting outside the submerged city, over the last high ground, frying like eggs. Crazy-ass, stupid outsiders.

Carter was pulled from his misery as a brisk breeze kicked up, a welcome relief from the stifling heat, and he looked up from the deck to see the shadow of a cloud sliding across the surface of the water, coming in their direction. Beyond that, another. Storm moving in, he realized, and checked the horizon to see how much trouble they were in. Getting caught in the open like this could get deadly ugly and he wasn't certain that the electric outboard had the guts to outrun the squall. Storms didn't need names to kill you. To his surprise he saw only piercing blue. Not a cloud in the sky.

Carter stood and checked the water again. A third shadow appeared and then a blotch that began to spread across the horizon. He heard Kyle gasp from the platform as the first shadow reached the far edge of the flat, poured onto it, segmented, and swirled about, exquisite, syncopated patterns. Crisp silver tails began to appear in the chop. The fly rods were forgotten as Carter stared at the miracle and began to understand what Grandpa had been trying to tell him.

The bonefish had arrived in Wilmington.