Solar Seal by Ryan Stong Home

Chapter 1

The marshy landscape was littered with ancient debris and rusted metal as far as the eye could see. Long-dead barnacles cluttered nearly everything below the dark, waist-deep water's surface, making it necessary to tread carefully to prevent ripped clothes and cuts. The fish had died out long ago, but that was long enough ago that the rancid stench mentioned in stories had gone away, leaving nothing but stagnant, salty air. The sediment in the water never settled, however, making it nearly impossible to see the short distance to the ground.

The water was just deep enough that you couldn't drive a truck through it, so Isaac trudged along towing a lightweight barge made of plastic behind him. He was just one of about 50 members on his collection team, and his self-taught expertise in mechanics designated him as a motor parts collector. New members are usually tossed into the plastic, glass, or metal collection teams depending on age and strength, but Isaac had made a name for himself when he rolled into the compound in his self-made truck. He had been recruited into the collection corps about a week ago after he had had some time to rest, clean up, and get some identification, and this was his first outing with his team.

He tripped over something hidden under the water and fell forward, reaching his hands out to stop his fall but just getting them ripped up by the barnacles that had cemented themselves to whatever it was he had tripped over. His head plunged below the murky water as his eyes and arms instantly burned in the salty brine, and he thrust himself back up as quickly as possible, screaming in agony. Another member of his team, a petite, blonde woman with light skin, immediately splashed over to him holding her briefcase-sized med lab.

"Easy there, newbie," she smiled as Isaac continued seething and grunting in pain. She pulled a thin, tan towel out of a compartment in the med lab and used it to first dab Isaac's eyes and them wrap around his arms. The towel expanded as it filled with water and blood, which she then set aside into Isaac's barge, proceeding to pull a long, rectangular wand with a trigger out of the med lab. When she pulled the trigger, a bright, blue light shone out of bottom of the wand, and she shone it over Isaac's outstretched arms. The pain dulled immediately, but scraps of skin still dangled off of the lightly-mangled arms, so she put the wand back, pulling out what looked like a hair dryer instead. She flipped the switch on the back and hot air blew out of the nozzle, which burnt the hanging bits of skin away while also causing the cuts to close up. Isaac hissed as the stinging, burning sensation blew over his arms, but after just a couple of minutes, there was fresh, pink skin lining his arms.

"Whew, you're a lifesaver, Emma. Glad you were close enough to help quickly!" Isaac said with a relieved sigh, running his hands over the soft skin.

Emma's round glasses glinted in the sun as she squeezed out the blood and water from the towel before placing it back into a compartment labeled "Sanitize" in the med lab. He watched as she popped a pill out of a dispenser and handed it to him. He had thought it strange when he found so many people with skin as light as hers at the commune, but he had read about a time when there were a lot of them in this part of the world. He accepted the pill graciously, putting it into his mouth and pulling out his filter straw to suck up some of the water around him. The water was warm, but tasted just fineā€”to think that he had gone so long without one of these straws during his travels!

"Just try to be a little bit more careful in how you step. Don't put your full weight down until you can tell that you're not gonna get caught on anything," Emma smiled, adjusting her full-body rubber overalls that kept her clothes underneath dry, "It's tricky to get the hang of at first, but you'll learn to navigate well enough if you keep at it."

Isaac thanked her again as she walked back to her lane and continued her search for material to collect. By the end of the day, the team had swept about 5 square kilometers and collected what seemed to Isaac to be a lot of plastic and metal, but the team leader, Saanvi, wasn't wearing her usual smile when she surveyed the load. That quickly passed, and her smile beamed out over the gathered group of collectors.

"Great work today, team! It looks like this area is just about empty, which means we'll need to move on to a new area next time. For now, though, it's time to get home for a well-earned rest!" Saanvi led the way back to the large boat they had arrived in, helped everyone separate the materials into the correct bin, and shoved off for the mainland.

Isaac looked back over the marshy wasteland and felt something pang in his chest. He wasn't sure, but the sight made him feel... what? Nostalgic? That wasn't exactly right, but he didn't know quite how else to identify it. He didn't like it very much, so he turned back around and walked below deck to mingle.

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