From beloved actor and producer Omar Epps and writer Clarence A. Haynes comes the biggest epic fantasy of the year! Read an exclusive excerpt and pre-order Nubia: The Awakening now…
The streets of lower Manhattan were slick with rain, puddles glowing with light from the hologram news flashing across the buildings. The words FLOOD WARNING shone in red, continuously scrolling beneath the news reports. Those below in the Swamp kept their doors shut tight in response, or as tight as they could given the crumbling brick and mortar that made up their apartments. They, of course, were the lucky ones. Most of the inhabitants lived in archaic wooden shanties with aluminum roofs, sequestered in what had once been the financial district of New York City before the gleaming skyscrapers were demolished.
But whether the people were in apartments or shanties, each storm battered their homes even further, threatening to sweep them all away the next time the clouds darkened and the thunder roared. Each drop of rain spelled potential doom.
Still, those living below were strong. They built and rebuilt, using whatever materials they could to fortify their homes. They leaned on one another, holding tight to the community they’d carried across the sea. It wouldn’t be the first time Nubians experienced a flood.
On this rainy night, a figure in a long coat slogged through the wet. They pulled their hood tighter against the chill in the air.
The figure’s eyes moved to a holo-ad, watching the words blossom across the night sky amid the downpour.
Don’t you want to ascend Up High?
Up High. The glorious promise of the sky city. The figure pivoted, taking in the terrain as far as they could. To the north stood the faint outlines of the sleek Central Park towers that ferried citizens to the heavens. In contrast, the south offered up a jagged brown seawall, one of several that loomed over the lower portions of New York.
The figure tilted their head back, gazing up at the promise itself. Above them, the city in the sky loomed large, glittering and bright, buoyed by its antigravity technology. Up there, the rain pattered gently on windows and roofs, never finding an open crack, never slipping through to aggravate the residents nestled inside.
Up High, a person wanted for nothing. Up High, rain was a steady melody to fall asleep to and not the stuff of nightmares.
Footsteps made the figure turn. They ducked closer to the nearest building, letting shadows swallow them whole. They watched for someone to appear, looking left and right as only one who knows they’re being followed does. They waited, their breath white in the cold air.
The night was quiet, save for the rain. It beat steadily. Soon, it might stop completely, only to be replaced by an intense heat that would burn skin and take one’s breath away.
There was no telling with the weather. Not anymore.
But for now, the rain hid the sound of the footsteps as
they started again. The figure, still pressed against the wall, found themself pulled back to the words of the holo-ad.
Find yourself in the sky.
Find yourself Up High.
The figure hugged themself against the chill.
They took a step forward, letting the light of the holo warm their face with its radiance, their arms falling to their sides. For a brief moment, they forgot about the rain.
They didn’t see the person behind them until it was too late.
Each punch brought Zuberi a bit closer to peace.
The bag she was working was ancient, peeling in places, with lopsided stuffing that left her knuckles smarting after the beating. She was going to need to do some rehab on it soon, otherwise she’d just be punching leather. Zuberi stepped back from the bag, taking a breath in the cool morning air. She rubbed absently at the silver scar on her chin, tossing her loc’ed hair away from her face as she forced herself to slow her breathing.
Zuberi knew that part of mastering the fighting forms was mastering the breath. It couldn’t be all punching and kicking. Ever since her father had started to train her in Nubian fighting forms, he’d stressed the importance of mindfulness, of honing one’s thoughts before landing each blow. Her father had drilled this philosophy into her brain ever since she was small, when it was her tiny fist connecting with his palm in their living room.
Now Zuberi had more than outgrown training in that living room, mostly because it doubled as her bedroom. So she’d gotten creative, something she’d never had a problem with. Sometimes she’d train in an empty warehouse; other times she’d train in the scraggly Hudson scrapyards with their open access to the river. At school, there was the gym, which she used on occasion. But she preferred places in nature, one of the reasons she made the trek so early to Minerva Park. Nature, with its serenity and stillness, made it easier for her to find an organic connection between the human body and the outer world, an intention deeply embedded in the Nubian forms. Given that the city was mostly devoid of nature, though, she had to rely on the small offerings of trees and shrubs found in Minerva. There, Zuberi had her special hidden places where she could practice, like her little patch off to the side of the abandoned playground where there was a sturdy-enough tree to hang the trusty punching bag she’d bought cheap from one of her neighbors.
She had to admit it felt good to get out of the Swamp, as much as she loved her hood. The Nubian Quarter wasn’t an actual swamp, of course, but that was what everyone had called it for as long as Zuberi could remember. She’d asked her father once why the quarter had been blessed with such a nickname, and he’d just shaken his head. He knew that when Zuberi asked a question—no matter how innocent it seemed—she usually had about five others in reserve.
The Swamp was where most Nubian refugees lived, a last resort after they’d fled their homeland and arrived in New York back in the early-2080s. Nubians couldn’t find even the most menial jobs and were shut out of the renters’ market by landlords, so they had no choice but to lease cheap plots of land held by the government in the city’s abandoned financial district, which had since moved Up High. They’d been expected to fail, or so Zuberi’s father told her. It had been through sheer Nubian will and a sense of community that they’d managed to build and maintain their homes there, humble as they might be.
Nubian will was behind most of the things Nubians had. Zuberi had seen it all her life. Her own father’s determination to pass down the fighting forms was a testament to that, too, how he made sure she not only learned them all but could enact each of them in her sleep.
She turned back to the bag, shifting her weight as she landed more blows before switching to high kicks. She crouched low, her legs shaking from the exertion. She must’ve already been out in the park for at least an hour, and she was feeling it everywhere. Didn’t matter. Pain was part of the process, and she welcomed it with open arms. Punching and kicking and maneuvering around the bag every day helped Zuberi deal with whatever she needed to deal with before she could be a “regular person,” as Vriana liked to put it.
On the next punch, she connected with a sharp corner of the bag. Bright pain zinged up her arm and she stepped back. It was then that she heard a voice, a whisper.
Zuberi’s head whipped around as she sought the source. She didn’t expect to be in the park alone—many people used it for recreation and, in some cases, a home. But this early, it was usually quiet. Zuberi swiped at her brow before catching sight of something stirring in the brush across from her.
“Someone there?” she called out, flexing herfingers.
More stirring. Zuberi swore she heard a sort of gasping sound, followed by a cough.
She bit her lip. It was impossible not to hear her dad’s voice in her head, telling her that this could be a trap and to run away—now. As the head of his own security company, he knew every trick and scam in the book. The city was rife with desperate people, and desperation made people dangerous.
But Zuberi also knew that if some mugger was hiding in the brush, they’d picked the wrong girl.
She took a few tentative steps toward the brush. As she got closer, a cool April breeze kicked up, making her shiver. She blinked at the dust stirred up around her, then opened her eyes again.
At first, Zuberi didn’t know what she was seeing. It was like a wisp of air, something both completely there and not, like a spark of electricity zipping over an exposed wire. Here and gone again, more than shadow but not by much. A wisp of a figure, barely discernible in the haze of morning. She blinked again, thinking the morning’s exertion was getting to her.
And that was when the wisp sharpened.
A woman appeared, with long braids over her shoulders and eyes that glowed in the beams of sunlight that fell through the branches of the trees. Her gaze settled on Zuberi, piercing, unforgiving. She wore long robes, her arms crossed. Zuberi felt as if she was being judged, but for what?
The woman’s eyes drifted down, and Zuberi started. There, on the ground, two feet poked out from behind a tree. A woman—the same woman who Zuberi saw clearly floating just above—was
passed out, tucked into a hollow in the tree trunk beneath an array of branches that held a school of
nu-raves. Her eyes were closed, her head slumped forward. Her skin was tinged purple, drool dribbling down her chin.
Goddess . . .
She knew what she was seeing, even if she’d never seen it so up close before. She knew by the way the woman’s veins swelled on her hands and how her cheeks hung slack that these were the signs of Elevation.
Elevation. Even the drugs that swarmed the city were laced with promises of Up High living. It made Zuberi’s stomach churn, especially now, as the woman in front of her twitched.
But while Elevation explained the woman’s condition, it didn’t explain the figure floating above her. The woman continued to stare down at her in judgment, through and through. That gaze, it reminded Zuberi of her father and her aunties. It reminded her—Suddenly, the figure was gone. Zuberi squinted, then closed her eyes, then opened them again. The air was clear, empty. She stepped back, crossing her arms and squeezing them tight
to her body. She felt dizzy.
She’d pushed herself too hard, clearly. Hallucinations were a problem with dehydration and overexertion. Her father told her so all the time. And when Zuberi looked back up at her empty water bottle, she knew she’d done way too much this morning.
Below her, the woman groaned, and Zuberi stepped back. Part of her wanted to wake the woman up, make sure she was okay. It was what Vriana would do, after all. But then she remembered her father’s warning about strangers yet again.
So she left, deeply uneasy as she made her way home to shower and get ready for another day at High School 104. It would’ve been easier to do if all she had to worry about was class, but the woman’s eyes followed her every step of the way, vicious and narrow no matter how Zuberi tried to shake them off.
By the time she reached the worn façade of 104, the morning had brightened. She entered the building and passed through the Taser and e-dagger detectors, finding the campus mostly empty since it was still fairly early. She could hear the occasional sounds of lectures droning through classrooms, signs of life thanks to those who took on the extra zero period. Beyond that, there were small knots of students leaning against concrete walls or huddled around benches. She saw one kid with a heavy marker drawing long black lines down the side of a slab of concrete, his moves lazy and unhurried. She watched to see what he was writing, though she had her guesses. Judging by the sun emblem on his jacket, he ran with the Divine, one of the gangs her father was always chasing away from the stores he ran security for.
Zuberi jumped at the sound of her name, though as soon as Vriana appeared beside her, she relaxed. It was as instant as a hot bath, the way her best friend could always make her feel better. No matter what was going on, Vriana was the salve.
“Girl, I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” Vriana said, pulling her into a quick embrace. “I’m exhausted and it’s only morning.”
Zuberi laughed. “Sorry. Just got here. What’s up?” Vriana flashed a toothy grin as she took hold of Zuberi’s arm, guiding her to a nearby bench to sit.
“I want to go check out those boys from the Divine Suns who’re running track this morning,” she said. “Did you see their muscles? Mm, mm, mm, oh-so-
Zuberi grinned and shook her head. Another day, another Vriana crush. They came in waves, almost as dependable as the dawn of a new day. It wasn’t as if the love wasn’t reciprocated, either. Zuberi would bet currency that her best friend was one of the most crushed-on kids in their grade. Even non-Nubian kids flirted with Vriana, a feat that Zuberi
would’ve declared next to impossible given the rampant prejudice Nubians faced.
Of course, it wasn’t hard to see why people fell for Vriana, considering she was beauty incarnate. Where Zuberi was athletic leanness with a streamlined, subtle personal style, Vriana was effortless curves wrapped in trendsetting fashion. Today, she was wearing dark blue jeans with lightning-bolt rips on the thighs, paired with a neon-pink kente tee knotted just above her hip to show off a sliver of skin. Vriana had a warmth that shone through all over, from the way she spoke with her hands to the gleam in her brown eyes, often accentuated with a rainbow of colors that Zuberi knew she never could’ve pulled off. Today, Vriana had lined her eyes in silver and gold, a perfect counterpart to her navy-and-magenta
braids, which were swept up in a side bun. With her braids up, Zuberi could see the thin plate earring that Vriana always wore.
“Beri? You listening to me?”
Zuberi blinked. No, she hadn’t been listening. Like so many of her peers, Zuberi had been briefly wrapped up in taking Vriana in. You’d think multiple years of friendship would’ve dulled the effect, but Vriana still struck anyone she met into a brief—and embarrassing—stupor. Zuberi felt a bit
better when she saw a boy across the way literally trip over his feet to look at Vriana before running into a wall.
“Sorry,” Zuberi said, shaking her head with a laugh as Vriana looked over her shoulder at the boy. “I was just checking out your eyeliner.”
“Oh, it’s perfect today, right?” Vriana said, tapping the side of her right eye. “You wouldn’t believe how long I spent on it. Anyway—the hot Divine—”
“Hang on,” Zuberi said, raising her hand. “Didn’t you just start dating that girl from chem?”
Vriana scowled. “Right. Samantha. She got crazy possessive, so I broke it off last night. I was going to text you but it was late.”
“You broke it off? Vri, you’d been talking about that chick nonstop for days. I mean, Sammie this, Sammie that . . .”
“And it was going well and fine until she started interrogating me about where I’d been and who I’d been hanging out with after the second date. And asking me why I wasn’t answering her messages right away?” Vriana made a dismissive gesture with her fingers. “Um, no, unacceptable. That’s just
a controlling relationship waiting to happen. And you know my freedom is too important to me to be dealing with possessiveness.”
Zuberi rolled her eyes. “Goddess give me strength. All right, okay. Continue.”
“Thank you,” Vriana said. “Anyway, I’ve got my eye on this one Divine guy, Zaire. Really big and hunky
. . . and juicy. I need you to do some recon for me. He seems like the strong, silent type, but just in case he’s actually an asshole—”
“Girl, you’re saying you’ll break up with someone for being too possessive, but a full-blown Divine kid is okay?” Zuberi scoffed, shaking her head again. “He’s literally in a gang. As in, hurts people on a regular basis.”
Vriana dug through her scholar-pack, waving her free hand absently at Zuberi.
“He’s just misunderstood,” Vriana said. “Trust me. We have some classes together and he seems so sweet and sensitive. And besides, not all of the Divine are savage. Like I said, if you do the recon—”
“Which involves what, exactly?”
“Well, you know, since you’re also the strong, silent type, you’ll be able to tell if he’s a good guy.”
Zuberi snorted. “That literally makes no sense.”
Vriana extracted a notebook, one she’d decorated with a variety of sparkling stickers, and began flipping through the pages. “It makes perfect sense. Maybe you can invite him for one of your morning workouts.”
The mention of the workout sent a shiver up Zuberi’s spine, and she worried her lip. Vriana looked up at her and raised an eyebrow.
“What?” Vriana asked, pausing her notebook flipping. “Something happen this morning?”
Zuberi shrugged. She didn’t like to hide things from Vriana, mostly because Vriana could be counted on to dig and dig until she unearthed whatever it was that Zuberi was trying to keep a secret. Like when Zuberi had stumbled over to her house on that horrible night . . .
She turned away from the memory, trying to force her mind to stay on the current problem. Unfortunately, that meant focusing on what she’d just experienced in the park.
Had she really seen a spirit?
Zuberi caught her best friend’s worried gaze. She knew Vriana would want to know every detail of what she saw and help her work through it. After all, Vriana fancied herself an amateur therapist—and she wasn’t half bad. Still, even if Zuberi wanted to be honest with her friend, what could she say?
“Nothing,” Zuberi said. “Just got kind of spooked while I was working out, I guess. Felt a little woozy. Probably didn’t drink enough water.”
Vriana’s face relaxed. “I’m always telling you that you don’t hydrate enough.”
Zuberi smiled and tapped her friend on the shoulder. “Sage advice.”
Vriana hooked her free arm through Zuberi’s and dragged them both to their feet.
“Come on,” Vriana said, leading them both toward the opposite side of the school where more students were starting to filter in. “If we hurry, I bet we can catch the end of the practice. Oh, and you can quiz me for history.”
She passed the notebook to Zuberi, open and flipped to where she’d written her notes.
“Ugh,” Zuberi said, looking at the pages. “I forgot. It’s an essay test, too, right?”
“Yep,” Vriana said with a sigh. “And completely unnecessary. I don’t care what a bunch of dead guys did a billion years ago. They could be teaching us something interesting, like how we should take care of our bodies and relate to each other, but noooooooo. It’s always gotta be about why this old
dead guy hated this other dead guy and . . . oh,
guess what? They helped jack up the world and then they died.”
Zuberi bit her lip. It was one of the things she and Vriana would never agree on, no matter what. Vriana was smart, one of the smartest kids in their grade, but there were subjects she cared about—psychology, chem, and lit, for example—and
subjects she loathed. History fell into the latter category.
She claimed it was because she liked to focus on the present, but for Zuberi, you couldn’t appreciate the present without also knowing the past.
It wasn’t like Zuberi was in love with their history class, especially since their preceptors always gave them the same rehashed versions of Tri-State East events: the climate catastrophes, the building of the first seawall in New York, the creation of the sky city, and so on. Lessons were always taught
with the air that the creation of Up High had saved so many and created a new age where everyone had the chance to succeed. Nubians, the people who had come to this city after their own land was destroyed, were completely forgotten.
Still, learning history was important to Zuberi, even if she got a watered-down version. At least she could fill in the holes, uncovering what people were hiding about the system. And she could uncover the lies told by folks like Krazen St. John. It was the kind of thing that could get Zuberi ranting for hours. How Krazen St. John’s promise of a better life Up High was a big piece of the problem. Something for the lower-city residents—particularly Nubian refugees—to chase after so that they never stopped to realize that it was because of the Up High that they suffered. How many funds went Up High rather than to the lower city where they were needed? Why did Up High residents always get the best tech, the best medical attention, the best everything, while those in the lower city dealt with crumbling roads and decrepit buildings and streets crawling with St. John Soldiers?
“Beri, you’re doing it again.”
She blinked. Vriana had nearly marched them all the way to the field, though they were currently walking through the trailers that held foreign-language classes on the outskirts of the school. The area was mostly deserted, save for a few groups of kids huddled together along the edges of campus. Behind them, covered in thick grime, was a once-yellow HS 104 CREATES STARS sign that had been defaced numerous times. It was a fairly depressing part of 104, and that was saying something.
“Sorry,” Zuberi said. “What’d you say?”
“Going into your own world again,” Vriana replied with a huff. “Ignoring my pressing test needs. Don’t worry, though. We’re almost there.”
“Right,” Zuberi said, trying to stay present. “You wanted—”
A rock zipped past Zuberi’s face, so close that she felt a rush of wind on her cheek. She whipped toward the source to find a tall, lanky boy leaning against one of the concrete pillars, his lips curled into a cruel smile. His friends behind him smirked and sneered.
Zuberi’s eyes swept over them, from the snaking tattoo on one of their necks to the web insignias scrawled on the sides of their jackets. All part of a gang, dubbing themselves the Spiders.
In Zuberi’s last two years at 104, she’d watched as gangs slowly became more ubiquitous. It had started with small interactions in the hallway, the way different crews glared at each other, and had moved on to an uptick in tagging chairs, walls, toilets . . . anywhere that could be reached, really. Then, of course, there were the fights. With each mix-up, the gangs got a little bolder. It was one of the reasons why Zuberi fully intended to tell Vriana—no matter how “nice” Zaire seemed—that gang members were off-limits.
Case in point, the Spider asshole now staring Zuberi down. He was thin with yellowing teeth, no doubt the result of whatever form of Elevation he was taking. She glared at him, wishing he would evaporate on the spot.
“Hello, ladies,” the skinny boy said, picking up another rock. “Don’t y’all look good.”
Zuberi fought to keep her fists unclenched. She moved to keep walking, but before she could, two
boys she hadn’t seen stepped in front of her and Vriana. Immediately, her breathing spiked. It won’t be like last time, she told herself. Calm down. Next to her, Vriana laughed, a high, tinkling sound.
“Throwing rocks to get our attention?” Vriana teased. “Are we in second grade?”
The skinny boy kicked off from where he was leaning, striding toward them, nearly closing them in.
“Oh, believe me,” he growled. “We’re far from that.” Vriana still smiled, both hands tightly gripping the straps of her scholar-pack.
“Good. Then you’ll let us get to class.”
“You weren’t going to class,” said the boy. “You were going to watch those Divine losers. But don’t worry. We’ll forgive you.”
Zuberi glanced at Vriana, seeing her friend’s smile falter ever so slightly.
“How ’bout you back the fuck up, you skanky zombie,” Zuberi said, eyes cutting back to the boy as she stepped forward, forcing him to take a step back.
His head lurched toward her, a look of disbelief on his face. “What’d you say to me?”
“You heard me,” Zuberi said, realizing that she knew this fool’s name from hearing other Spiders shout him out on campus. “Back the fuck up, Kal. We don’t want to talk to you.”
He sidestepped her, moving in on Vriana. “No problem. We’ll talk to your friend.”
Kal’s eyes traveled down the girl’s body, lingering on her chest and thighs before he raised his eyebrows gleefully at his friends. They snorted with laughter as panic gathered in Vriana’s eyes.
“We’re leaving,” Zuberi said, grabbing her friend’s hand. It was shaking.
You’re running again, Zuberi scolded herself. You could take every one of those guys. So why are you running?
But now wasn’t the time, not with Vriana by her side. Even if she could take these guys, it wasn’t worth getting her best friend hurt.
It didn’t help either that, when she looked at the boy’s eyes, she saw the woman from earlier. Strung out. Alone. And still, the look of judgment.
“Come on,” Zuberi said, her voice barely a whisper.
Vriana nodded. She didn’t question why Zuberi steered them away from both the Spiders and the Divine on the track field, moving them straight to class.
But Zuberi still felt the look of the Spiders on her back. She knew that she’d just become a target.
She didn’t mind.
Let them try.
Next time, she’d show them exactly who they were
Uzochi’s favorite class was his zero-period special elective, with its roster of rotating topics. Here, in the early-dawn course that was only taken by students who wanted to excel, he found peace. In this class, no one judged him for arriving five minutes early or for his color-coded notes (yellow, orange, and royal blue being his favorite hues). No one laughed behind their hands when he soared to the top of the digital scoreboard during review games. No one whispered among their friends while he tried to concentrate on his tests. No, in zero-period special elective, Uzochi sat among peers who, like him, were dedicated to something greater, who really wanted something and were willing to sacrifice an extra two hours of sleep per day to achieve it.
A few students had parents who forced them to take zero period, but honestly, Uzochi didn’t mind that. He understood parental pressure all too well.
“This will all be worth it,” his mother would sometimes tell him as he packed up for school before the rest of the neighborhood woke up. “When we ascend, you’ll look back on your choices with pride.”
Uzochi’s eyes swept the room, taking in the other students. Each of them sat at their desk, organized in rows with their digital notebooks open. He heard the usual light tap-tap-tap as his peers chose their answers for this morning’s quiz. Sitting a few rows behind him, his classmate Sekou absently twirled a tablet pen in his hand. Sekou was one of the students who Uzochi would’ve guessed was here because of his parents, but he also had an effortless cool that meant he belonged anywhere. He could join the students clowning around in regular history and then the next day put his head down and ace the tests in special elective. Sekou moved through 104 like water, fluid and malleable, able to fit into a variety of spaces.
Uzochi was envious. He couldn’t be water. He’d tried, but he believed himself to be more like stone. Immovable, rigid.
Instantly, a modulated voice chirped, “Eyes on your own paper, students.”
Uzochi’s gaze flicked over to the droid positioned at the center of the classroom, its digital eyes scanning from corner to corner. The whir of the robot was white noise to Uzochi at this point, as were the quiet pings that swept the room after its scan. On a couple of his peers’ desk screens, he saw the warning signs flashing: ACADEMIC DISHONESTY DETECTED; THIS IS A WARNING.
No such warning popped up on Uzochi’s desk, though he had read a different message in green: If you’re done with the test, please move on to the essay assignment posted on your class stream.
Uzochi had turned in his quiz approximately five minutes ago, not that he was counting. His gaze moved to where his teacher, Preceptor Ryan, sat at her desk, casually swiping at her own desk screen. Uzochi knew she was grading tests from her other classes. She didn’t always do it, but he could tell when she did. She crossed out sentences and circled things with her tablet pen, using a free hand to rub her temple. Sometimes, Uzochi swore he even heard her thoughts drift through the classroom, but he knew that was just the lack of sleep creeping in.
He glanced at the digital clock on his desk. Twenty more minutes. He’d hoped his peers would finish their tests fast enough so that he could get a jump on his next class’s lecture notes, but clearly that wouldn’t be happening. He sighed, pulling up the essay assignment on his digital notebook along with a separate tab for notes. Then he read the prompt, highlighting key phrases with his tablet pen as he went.
Essay Prompt: Using primary source documents, consider the impact of immigration on New York’s economy and population following the Great Storms of 2082. Identify pros and cons to ultimately determine whether immigration was a boon or disadvantage for the city. Be sure to consider multiple perspectives in your argument.
Uzochi bit his lip. When they’d first entered this section of the elective—the part titled “Climate Refugees of New York, 2082 and Beyond” in his textbook—he’d hoped that this was the point when his people’s history would finally be acknowledged by his school. After all, how could Nubians be left out of the material when they were so many of the refugees in question?
His hopes had been buoyed when Preceptor Ryan had rolled in one of 104’s only two holo-projectors, something that usually signaled that a lecture would be special or interesting. Uzochi had sat up as Ryan paced in the loose navy jumpsuit all preceptors wore, waiting for her to tell the story of his people.
She gave a short overview of how global climate catastrophes drove migration to the city, asking the class to refer to the timeline document she’d transmitted, and then moved on to focus on Nubians. Uzochi had leaned forward, ready for her words.
“Soooo, smack-dab in the middle of the Great Storms of 2082, thousands of Nubians reached the shores of New York by boat. They’d supposedly arrived from a remote island that had remained unmapped for centuries. It’s important to note that these claims have not been substantiated.” Preceptor Ryan pursed her lips, the skepticism on her face palpable. “They settled mostly in the lower regions of Manhattan, eventually clustering in the Nubian Quarter, though some were lucky enough to find better homes farther north and in the outer boroughs.”
Next to Preceptor Ryan, a crisp three-dimensional image had appeared above the projector—a brown seawall looming over rows and rows of shanties all resting on thick, crisscrossing stilts. Uzochi knew the area all too well . . . the Nubian Quarter, more often referred to as the Swamp.
“Immediately, their arrival put a strain on the economy,” Preceptor Ryan had continued. “Adult Nubians rarely joined the workforce, which isn’t too surprising given that the vast
majority of the population remains uneducated, holding blue-collar jobs like security guards, domestics, street vendors . . . Of course, some Nubians rise above this. A few excel as athletes and artists. But, unfortunately, the general pattern has been one of poverty, and it’s a vicious cycle. You all know of the young people in the community who’ve turned to gang life.”
She’d looked meaningfully around the room, and plenty of students had shifted uncomfortably. In her gaze was the unspoken question, “Are you next?”
“Now, of course, there are new programs to help Nubian refugees excel,” Preceptor Ryan said, clicking to her last slide, an image of Krazen St. John awarding one of his annual Rise Above scholarships to a tall Nubian girl with a gigantic smile holding a huge check—the scholarship Uzochi planned to apply for senior year.
Beside the beaming girl, Krazen St. John stood slightly off, his bald head shining under auditorium lights and the gray circuity of his implants glistening on his neck and hands and
the left side of his face. His olive skin was otherwise covered up by one of his trademark caftans, which swept the ground.
“Thanks to these programs,” Preceptor Ryan finished, “we’ve been able to help build up the community. But it’s not easy to break cycles of stagnation. It’s why I’m so proud of those of you who are here.”
Her eyes had glittered meaningfully, and Uzochi knew he wasn’t the only one who avoided her gaze. He understood that her comments were directed toward the few Nubians in the class.
“Now,” she’d continued. “Moving on to other refugees impacted by rising sea levels . . .”
The image of Krazen St. John then morphed to a video of the flooded canals of Amsterdam, marking the end of what Preceptor Ryan had to say about Nubians.
Uzochi hadn’t known what to say after the lecture, only that it all felt wrong. The problem was, Nubians were always associated with the horrors of 2082, as if they’d somehow brought over the storms that had left parts of New York permanently flooded. Uzochi knew the message well—that Nubians were untrustworthy, bad luck, omens of doom, purveyors of weather-based witchcraft. But he’d hoped his teacher would have more to say about the time. Part of him had even dared wish that she might correct the prejudiced stories instead of repeating what most people said about Nubians barely contributing anything to New York.
One look at his test, though, told him that not only did her lecture cover all that she had to say about his people, but Uzochi was expected to repeat it for his essay.
A message popped up on Uzochi’s screen from Sekou. It wasn’t the school’s official channel but his personal one, one he—and every other student who knew better—had created
through a hack. Uzochi glanced up at Preceptor Ryan to check that she was still grading and looked back at the message.
Sekou: This essay’s some bullshit.
Uzochi caught his breath. He agreed with Sekou. Of course he did. But typing that? Even if teachers couldn’t see his screen’s content through standard monitoring systems, Preceptor Ryan might get up and walk around the classroom and spot his message. But she was grading, obviously . . . Still, he’d just need to keep his response neutral, to be on the safe side.
Uzochi: Yeah, I turned it in. It was kinda hard.
He looked over and saw Sekou shaking his head. A flurry of messages appeared on Uzochi’s screen.
Sekou: Hard? It’s not hard. They want the party line even with the ton of Nubians that attend 104. Fuck that. She wants pros and cons? How about how my dad was forced to work as a street vendor for years before getting a sucky construction job? How about how we live in the Swamp because that’s the only place they let us live? Nah. I’m telling the truth.
Uzochi felt his chest tighten. He knew Sekou was right, but writing an essay like that would definitely get his friend into trouble. Sure, Sekou was half Nubian, half Italian, but he was open and proud about his Nubian heritage. Uzochi didn’t exactly have a choice in sharing what he was. With his particular set of features, he was Nubian through and through, and he was fine with his ancestry. But if he wanted to get anywhere in life, he had to earn that St. John scholarship and ascend.
Uzochi’s fingers hovered over the keyboard. He didn’t know what to type. He caught Sekou’s eyes, bright, waiting, and he knew before he answered that whatever he said would be a disappointment.
Up front, the droid began to whir louder. Uzochi looked up to see that several students around him had their mobiles out, whispering frantically about something.
“Students,” Preceptor Ryan said, standing up from her desk. “Devices away. You know better.”
The students exchanged looks but then stowed their devices, returning to their work. Uzochi didn’t miss that many of them had been messaging, just as he and Sekou had. Sure enough, a new message popped up on Uzochi’s screen from Sekou.
Spiders and Divine getting into it again. Security’s already broken it up. Don’t know why they do this shit at school.
Uzochi breathed a sigh of relief. This, at least, he and Sekou agreed on. Uzochi started to type back, but a new message appeared first.
Is it true your cousin’s running in the Divine now?
Uzochi’s fingers froze on the keypad. He knew the answer to the question but didn’t want to tell Sekou. The shame already burned through Uzochi constantly.
He occasionally saw his older cousin in the hallways of 104, happy to pass him by as quickly as he could. Lencho Will was the kind of guy who quickly filled up space with his arrogance and posturing, something Uzochi had no time for.
And now, based on everything he knew, his cousin was running with the Divine.
Uzochi glanced at Sekou, who was clearly waiting for his reply. He worried his lip and then began to type.
I dunno. Hope not. He’d be stupid to do that.
There. Now it was obvious—at least to Sekou—where Uzochi stood.
Another message popped up.
Have you talked to him? Bad shit happens to people in the Divine.
Uzochi tried not to look annoyed, wanting to send a snide message in response. Sekou clearly didn’t know Lencho. You didn’t just “talk” to his cousin. Speaking to a concrete wall yielded better results. But something told Uzochi that Sekou wanted a real answer.
The bell for next period rang through the room, harsh and piercing, saving Uzochi from having to reply. Everyone emptied out, including Sekou, while Uzochi took time to pack up. He didn’t need to be part of the crowd, especially if a fight had just been broken up. He zipped his pack and turned to leave just as one of next period’s students walked into the room. Uzochi’s heart nearly fell out of his chest.
He knew the girl from the halls of 104, the statuesque Nubian with the slight silver scar along her chin and cloud of midnight locs. In the English class they shared together last semester, she sat quietly in the back and slipped out as soon as the bell rang. Occasionally, she wore those bursts of color associated with descendants of Nubia—a sash of cerulean here, a scarf of topaz there.
The most incredible girl Uzochi had ever seen.
She threw her stuff down next to her seat and immediately started typing on her desk screen, not wasting a single minute. Just like he would’ve, getting straight to work.
“Uzochi? Did you need something?”
Preceptor Ryan’s voice cut through the room, and Uzochi immediately wished the ground would swallow him up. Because now Zuberi was staring at him, right when he was looking
like a complete fool.
“Uh, no,” he said quickly, shouldering his scholar-pack. “Just leaving. Um . . . yeah.
He avoided looking at Zuberi, but he could’ve sworn she was smirking. He walked quickly past her desk, mentally kicking himself the entire way.
Maybe there should be a special elective on talking to girls, Uzochi thought. He would take it in a heartbeat.
“Dude, I’m telling you, it would be a gold mine.”
The air around Lencho was heavy with the scent of spices and smoke pouring from the line of food trucks parked along the streets near 104. Kids from school were crowded all around, eager to fill up on the daily offerings. Some chose the cheapest options, while others . . . well, they weren’t loaded exactly, but they had currency to exchange.
Currency Lencho was desperate to get his hands on.
“I’m telling you, these kids’ll buy anything if we sell it to them the right way,” he muttered. “We’d have a constant stream of income. Enough to—”
“Lencho, it’s school. We gotta draw the line.”
Aren’s voice was deep, heavy, the sound of a boy who’d truly grown into a man. And even though he was only slightly older than Lencho, that year of being out of 104 had aged him beyond just his voice. He sported a mane of black-and-brown curls and a long beard that he hadn’t worn when he was at school, along with new tattoos and a few scars encircling his arms. And though Lencho was the taller of the two, Aren’s presence was weightier. More powerful.
It was why, Lencho knew, Aren was a natural leader for the Divine, why he’d been chosen as general and able to rise up the ranks so quickly. But—and Lencho would’ve never said so out loud—Aren’s tough visage wasn’t always mirrored on the inside. He drew too many lines. As far as Lencho was concerned, it was costing the Divine.
And it was costing Lencho.
“The Spiders don’t care,” Lencho said “They sell to kids in my grade and lower. I know they do.”
Together, Lencho and Aren made their way through the makeshift market that lined the path of almost every kid heading home from 104. Beyond the market were sooty brick buildings and streets where rusted hover cars glided past, their engines a steady hum. Merchants without trucks found space on the sidewalk, hanging over makeshift pits of fire, roasting pans heavy with fried eggs or insects or arachnids. It was a bustling place, full of voices and the sound of clanking utensils.
Lencho had brought Aren here so that he could see the possibility. In fact, he’d begged Aren to meet him here after Lencho had gotten off school. He’d spent his classes brainstorming how it would all work. How they could get Elevation cheaply from their usual sources, but instead of pouring it into the streets—where their regular clientele was primarily made up of those already addicted—they could find new customers, kids their age eager to experiment. The plan was foolproof.
“The Spiders are the reason not to do it,” said another voice from behind Lencho. He turned his head slightly, finding Lara trailing behind them, a whipped yogurt in hand. She looked intimidating as always, with her chiseled face and shaved head. As she tilted her head at Lencho, judgment leaked from every pore.
Lencho hadn’t wanted Lara to be there today. As Aren’s right-hand lieutenant, it was technically Lara’s job to overthink every new move the Divine Suns made. But it didn’t mean Lencho loved having her around, poking holes in his plan before he even had a chance to defend himself.
“Right, moving in on their turf and transactions. I get it. But we can handle them,” Lencho said. “Besides, they’re too high and mighty as it is. They’re getting arrogant, and someone needs to shut ’em up.”
Someone, Lencho thought wildly, like me.
Lencho had been in the Divine for only a month or so, and he wasn’t taken seriously. He was just another kid trying to prove himself, but other kids didn’t have the stakes that Lencho had, didn’t have his promise.
Aren steadied his gaze.
“Look, man, I know you want to do this and resolve our supplier issue,” he said. “But I’ve got a line, okay? No schools, no Nubians. There’re too many of us who go to 104. We don’t hurt kids, and we don’t hurt our own.”
Lencho clenched his fists together in the pocket of his hoodie, forcing himself to breathe. It took every part of him not to tell Aren that he was fucking this up majorly, that life was shit and sometimes you needed to do what you needed to do, scruples be damned. But in the end, he fixed a smile on his face and nodded.
“Sure,” he said. “Respect.”
He caught Lara’s eye, the smirk clear as day on her face. He hated when she looked at him like that.
“Keep it up, sweetie,” she said, giving him a pat on the shoulder like he was a dog. “You’ll make something happen someday.”
“It’s true,” said Aren. “Just keep your eyes out for opportunity. You want some stuff to sell for later, maybe when you’re back in your hood or uptown?”
“No” was what Lencho wanted to say. Selling kept him firmly in groundling territory, and he wanted to be a leader. But what choice did he have? So he nodded, and Aren passed him a small bag of Elevation, which Lencho quickly stowed in his pocket, hiding the iridescent purple pills that easily attracted attention.
“It’s good to see you, man,” Aren said, giving Lencho a light pound on his fist. “I like how your mind’s always moving. Lara and I got some shit to do, all right? But we’ll talk soon. Light be with you, bruh.”
Lara said nothing, barely waving goodbye as she and Aren walked away.
Lencho tried not to look as hurt as he felt as the two of them left the market. He’d have to make do with what he had, or, at least, he’d have to come up with more reasons why his plan was the right one. His eyes swept the crowd in frustration as he was forced to ignore the plethora of potential consumers for the Divine. He felt antsy, like he needed to make some sort of move.
“So it’s true then.”
Lencho turned at the sound of the voice. There, in the crowd, stalking toward him, was one of the last people he wanted to see right now.
Uzochi already looked unreasonably preppy with his spiffy brown jacket and gray slacks and shiny scholar-pack, but it was the smug, holier-than-thou look on his face that really pushed Lencho over the edge.
“What’s true?” Lencho said as Uzochi stepped in front of him.
“That you’ve joined the Divine,” Uzochi said, eyes narrowed. Lencho looked past his cousin to make sure Aren and Lara had disappeared into the crowd, and then he shrugged.
“Yeah, it’s true,” he said. “What about it?”
Lencho took in the scene. He let his gaze travel to the beefy construction workers who sat nearby on the crumbling curb, eating scorched mealworms and peppers off wooden kebab sticks, and the women in flowing skirts and trousers and tunics with little kids in tow. He didn’t see any adults he recognized. He needed to make sure there weren’t any nosy aunties nearby who’d say something to Uzochi’s mom. He’d never hear the end of it, the suggestion that he was pulling Uzochi away from his schoolwork and over to the dark side. The side where you ran with gangs.
As if Lencho would want a mouse like Uzochi running with him. He tried to imagine what the other Divine would say if Lencho even so much as suggested bringing his cousin into the crew. Uzochi, sanctimonious preceptor’s pet who thought he was better than everyone. It was bullshit.
“Why would you do this?” Uzochi asked, shaking his head, oblivious to Lencho’s thought. “Those guys fight over nothing.”
“We,” Lencho corrected, folding his arms over his chest, “defend our turf. There’s a difference.”
Uzochi scoffed. “Turf, you say, like you own territory. But guess what? You don’t. It’s just
. . . pointless.”
“Right,” Lencho said. “I should be reading more, right? Buy into that goody-goody ascension nonsense like you? Kiss the ass of the same people who call you a shack fucker?”
He swept his hand to where the words GO BACK TO THE SWAMP were scrawled in paint across a nearby poster advertising one of Krazen St. John’s newest “social welfare” programs. More crap that people like Uzochi were desperate enough to buy into.
“If I just read enough books and follow all their rules, maybe they’ll let me in,” Lencho said, his voice high and cruel and mocking. “Wake up, dude. At least we’re getting what we’re owed in the Divine. Some of us have actually had to grow up.”
Uzochi’s look of shame and pity never wavered as he kept shaking his head. He looked like he wanted to say something but held back.
Lencho felt like he was suddenly seeing his cousin for the first time. Uzochi . . . is
an uppity ass.
“You know what, just leave me alone, all right?” he said. “I can’t look like—”
“Like what?” Uzochi interrupted. “Like I’m your family? Because I am.”
Again, sparks rippled through Lencho. He closed his eyes to try to quiet the sensation, and then his gaze returned to his cousin.
“Blood’s just blood,” Lencho said. “I don’t need it.”
Uzochi started speaking, but almost instantly, he stopped. His eyes went wide, like he’d just heard or experienced something . . . horrible. Even for Uzochi, it was weird as hell.
“Did you hear that?” Uzochi said, eyes still wide as he turned around. “Something . . . someone screamed.”
Now he knew it. The constant studying had finally gotten to the kid.
“Over there,” Uzochi said, suddenly moving. “Come on!”
Lencho wanted nothing to do with his cousin, but the terror in his eyes was real. And so, with a hesitant look over his shoulder, he followed Uzochi from a distance, matching his pace.
They ran out of the market, turning down a nearby alley. At first, Lencho was about to curse Uzochi out for losing his shit—until
Lencho saw the girl.
He knew her from school, barely. Zuberi. The badass fighter chick with that little silver scar. And she was currently pinned against the wall by a damn Spider, his elbow lodged against her throat.
“See what happens when you disrespect us? Told you you’d pay.”
Zuberi had known they’d try something. All day, Spiders had mad-dogged her when they saw her in the halls. She’d disrespected and humiliated one of their own, after all. But other things had called for her attention and Spider bullshit had been pushed out of her mind.
She’d been leaving school when it had happened again, same as that morning. A group of guys gathered near 104’s exit, taunting each other while they played some game on their cracked tablets. Zuberi had barely noticed them, had given them a passing glance, and then, when she tilted her head up, she’d seen something else. Floating figures, shifting slightly in the air.
She’d stared at them, blinking rapidly, like they were images that wouldn’t fully load on one of her screens. She’d stood completely still and continued to look at the phantoms, squinting hard, desperate to parse out what she was seeing.
And then, of course, one of the guys had snorted with laughter, and the figures had evaporated on the spot.
Was it still dehydration? Exhaustion? Zuberi didn’t know. She’d told Vriana she needed to go straight home, though, sensing that maybe she needed to take a nap. What she really wanted to do was train more with the forms, but somehow that didn’t seem like the best idea.
She’d decided to walk through the market, thinking maybe she needed to eat, and wound her way through the crowds and the food trucks, taking in each menu to decide what she’d grab for the road. But then she realized she’d lost whatever appetite she’d had because of the odd visions. Deep in thought, she slowly walked past the lines of trucks to a more deserted corner of the market marked by rolling trash and abandoned vehicles.
“I’m telling you, no. My answer won’t change. I’m not selling that shit to Nubians.”
Zuberi had stopped short when she heard the voice, one she faintly recognized. She turned her head, realizing it was coming from behind a gutted hover van.
“Aren, I hate to admit this, but Lencho’s right, we need to branch out,” said another voice—a
girl’s. Moving silently on the tips of her toes, Zuberi crept closer to the voices, inching up to the side of the van and daring to peek around its huge rear fender. She immediately recognized the boy. Aren was a Nubian who used to go to 104, with rumors circulating that he’d dropped out to run the Divine full-time.
Zuberi didn’t like eavesdropping, wasn’t her style. But here was possibly concrete info she could give to Vriana about exactly why she needed to avoid the gang. After all, there was no doubt in Zuberi’s mind what these two were talking about. The Divine sold Elevation, which led to damaged folks like the woman Zuberi had seen earlier slumped against the tree. And maybe they didn’t sell to Nubians, but someone was selling to her people. In the past few years since the substance had hit the market, Zuberi had watched several Swamp families deal with constantly drugged-out relatives battling Elevation addiction. It wasn’t pretty.
“We focus on the customers we have,” Aren said. “They’re loyal.”
“They’re hooked, sure,” the girl said. “But they’re too far gone, too poor. And we need to up our numbers. You know we’re at risk of not being able to pay back our suppliers unless we make more sales. Significantly more sales. You’re always the one going on about taking the Divine to the next level, how we need to act like pros.”
Zuberi waited for the answer from Aren. She remembered him, a funny, cool kid with a laugh like a bolt of lightning. Always seemed older than he was, but this? This sounded above even him.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Zuberi realized just in time that the conversation was over and they were about to head her way. She shuffled off to the side just as quietly as before, ducking into an alley to hide.
She watched them from the shadows, Aren and his mystery Divine girl, as they strolled back into the market crowd and disappeared.
It was then that she’d heard the nearly hysterical laugh of Kal and several other Spiders behind her, waiting in the dark.
Zuberi barely had time to register what was happening, realizing that this was becoming a very unfortunate day. They’d caught her unaware, she’d give them that. It was how the asshole in front of her had gotten his hand around her throat, a move he was about to regret.
Rage crystallized in Zuberi’s body, running hot, then cold, then hot again, Kal grinning in the background, letting one of his cronies do the work. She shut her eyes to let fury settle into her legs, her arms, her core, her hands . . .
Today, she would not be running away.
She clenched her fists, angling her leg to knee the closest Spider in the groin. She’d strike him hard, and then she could take out the others. It would be simple, her mastery of the fighting forms ready to be unleashed. She would—
“Let her go!”
Both Zuberi and the Spider holding her whipped their heads toward the voice. There, standing in the alleyway, was someone Zuberi would’ve never expected to see. Uzochi Will.
She knew him from a couple of classes. Studious, well-mannered, and hardworking, with his hair often in fastidious cornrows and his clothes crisp, neat. The kind of guy who kept his head down and didn’t ask for trouble. Someone her father would’ve said “had his head on straight.” She knew Uzochi was waking up early for zero-period electives, having seen him that morning leaving class as she settled into first period.
But beyond that, Zuberi hadn’t learned much about the boy. He was quiet and kept to himself, which Zuberi could relate to. Otherwise, she knew him in the way so many young Nubians knew each other, through rumors and stories and passing comments. Her father knew his mother, just like everyone
else who had roots in the Swamp.
So why was it that when Uzochi showed up, Zuberi felt a weird ripple through her entire being?
It was like the moment in the park when she’d known there was something—someone—there before she’d found the Elevated woman. Because now, when Uzochi’s eyes met
Zuberi’s gaze, something dark and heavy and bright and loud hit her all at once. Something otherworldly.
Something much more dangerous than the hand on her neck.
Uzochi’s hands trembled as he clutched the straps of his scholar-pack, fear adding lead to his legs, lights starting to flicker in his eyes. There was no way he could handle the gang by himself. The Spiders surrounding the girl turned to him and grinned, knowing he was fresh meat that they could easily devour.
Zuberi’s eyes suddenly flashed in his direction, landing squarely on Uzochi, her gaze so direct that he stumbled. He’d never looked at her, not like this. He watched her watching him, holding his breath as she did.
But then, as quickly as they’d locked eyes, she was pulled back into the fight. Zuberi gripped the fingers of the Spider holding her throat, a sharp cracking sound filling the alleyway, and swept her left leg under his feet, sending him to the ground as he shrieked in pain. Another Spider ran up to her and slammed his fist into her side. She landed on the ground as well, breathing hard.
Uzochi knew he should go forward and help her, but he was frozen. As Zuberi struggled for breath, her eyes flashed open, landing firmly on Uzochi once again.
“What the hell, dude?” she yelled at him. “Get out of here!”
As she spoke, something slammed into Uzochi, something impossible to explain. Rage . . . ferocity . . . terror . . .
. . . all coiled into one.
The emotions were Zuberi’s—somehow, he knew it, deep in his gut—and they hit him like a brick to the stomach, so hard that he doubled back.
“I . . . I’m trying to help,” Uzochi said, trying not to sound as wounded as he felt.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got this, and I don’t need any more distractions,” she said, spitting blood onto the ground as she swiftly stood up and glared at the gang. “You assholes done?”
“This your boyfriend?” snarled the skinny kid. “You think this fight’s over now ’cause he’s here?”
“Are you kidding?” A Spider girl cackled from behind the kid. “I’ve seen this one around. Her boyfriend’s nothin’ but a nerd. A nasty Nubi nerd. I’ve got him, Kal.”
She picked up a metal pipe lying on the concrete and dragged it beside her, approaching Uzochi. “Could’ve just minded your business,” she snarled.
Uzochi didn’t move as she circled. He couldn’t have even if he’d tried, the fear in his bones freezing him to the spot. This close, he could see the purple veins pulsing in the girl’s eyes, her teeth chattering, her hands jittery. A metallic odor oozed from her skin. She was high on Elevation, no doubt about it.
The skinny kid smirked, pushing up his jacket so that his Spiders tattoo was visible. Uzochi knew the boy’s name, Kal, after hearing his stupid crew shout him out all the time on campus.
“Right,” Kal said. “And I’ll finish the girl.”
Uzochi swallowed hard. He’d been roughed up by gangs before. He would’ve preferred to reason with them, but he didn’t think that was happening.
“Hey, dumbass, what’s your fuckin’ problem?”
Uzochi breathed a sigh of relief. His cousin had followed him. As Lencho took his place next to Uzochi, the tight fear in his chest began to unravel. Lencho was sinewy muscle, a head and a half shorter than Uzochi but with a presence that made him seem bigger.
“Man, get outta here unless you wanna get your ass beat, too!” Kal yelled.
Lencho made no move to leave. “You’re a joke!” he shouted. “Lording around here with your crew and acting big, but you’re small. Inferior. You . . . ain’t . . . shit.”
Kal’s eyes widened.
“As a member of the Divine Suns, I invoke gang law. I challenge you to duel one-on-
one,” Lencho said, baritone voice booming through the alley. “Keep your li’l crew out of this. Just you and me. Or are you scared of being taken out by a skanky Nubi?”
Kal’s nostrils flared, the boy’s fury emanating from his skin. “You ugly-ass,monkey-faced
roach-eater. I don’t need help to take care of you!” he shouted back, his fists opening and closing at his sides. “I accept your challenge.”
The other gang members hooted. An afroed boy with a patch yelled, “C’mon, Kal, mess him up!”
Uzochi slowly moved backward, planting himself against a wall as the Spider ambled toward his cousin.
Then suddenly Kal charged, shoving Lencho’s shoulder. Right as Kal made contact, Lencho grabbed the boy’s hand.
“Hey, let me go, man,” Kal said, his voice shaky as he struggled to yank himself free.
Lencho’s frown slowly morphed into a toothy smile.
“No problem,” he said as he released Kal’s hand.
Glowering, the Spider let loose a roar and swung a left hook. Lencho dipped low, evading the blow.
Uzochi watched with his heart in his throat.
Kal swung again, his punch swift, tight. Again, Lencho ducked, avoiding contact.
Then, in a rush of motion, Lencho jumped high and smashed his foot into Kal’s jaw.
The boy staggered back. Lencho moved in, leaping to hit Kal again, a knock in the forehead here, a blow to the mouth there. Lencho’s speed increased as he jabbed at the Spider’s torso. And then he tackled Kal’s midsection, wrapping both arms around his waist and wrestling him to the ground.
Uzochi blinked. A light had appeared around Lencho and Kal. A light that seemed fluid, stringy . . . almost alive. He shook his head to try to clear his sight and looked away.
Zuberi was watching him. Her eyes were wide with . . . fear? Or something else? Her gaze darted back to Lencho and Kal, and then to Uzochi, her mouth hanging open.
“You . . . you . . .”
But the words didn’t come forth. Instead, she scrambled back on her hands and bolted out of the alley. Uzochi wanted to follow her, but the sound of crunching bones made him turn.
Kal had been thrown to the ground, groaning as he struggled to get up. Blood streamed down his face. He ran forward, swinging again. And again, Lencho dodged. He punched Kal once more, and then reconnected with his fists, twice, three times . . .
The gang quieted. Kal was moving more slowly, his arms limp, feet shuffling. Lencho danced back and forth in front of him with ease, his gait fluid as the larger boy started to slouch, lower lip sagging, knees bending. He looked way too heavy, his massiveness burdensome.
And Uzochi felt heavy as well, as if he’d been drained of energy, a pain penetrating his core.
The gang leader wobbled. Lencho connected with one more jab and Kal tilted over, hitting the ground.
The eye-patched Spider broke from the group and ran into the busy market.
Lencho stood over Kal, who was motionless, his head tucked into his chest. “Get up!” he yelled, giving the boy on the ground a kick. Then he bent over and rocked Kal’s limp body, pounding his back, his head, his arms, grabbing his shirt. “Get . . . up!”
“Lencho, stop. Stop. You won already!” Uzochi shouted, rushing forward. As he grabbed Lencho’s arm to pull him away, he noticed the blood dripping from Lencho’s hands. Kal’s blood.
“You won,” Uzochi said again, his voice gentle as he gestured to the Spider crumpled on the ground. “Let it go.”
Lencho looked over at his cousin and blinked, as though coming out of a daze. He stared at the hands restraining his arm.
“What the hell, man?” Lencho said, yanking himself from Uzochi’s grip.
Suddenly, movement caught Uzochi’s eye. He turned to see someone from the market running toward them, a security guard, no doubt. And when he got to the alley, he saw the boy on the ground. Barely breathing, blood everywhere. Lencho’s hand was on his shoulder, pushing Uzochi. Zuberi was already long gone. Uzochi instinctively knew he only had one choice, and he didn’t hesitate. Uzochi ran, not looking back.