“Hey, Uzochi, you with me?”
For a moment, Uzochi didn’t realize he was touching his cheek. He blinked a few times, quickly understanding that the air around him was dry, not a drop of moisture to be found falling from a sunny, bright sky. He was whisking away a phantom raindrop, something that was no longer part of reality.
“Uzochi,” said the voice again, softer now. He turned to its source, finding the strong, warm eyes of Zuberi looking back at him as they crouched in a narrow alley across from one of the entrances to Central Park. He readjusted to his real-world surroundings, noting that Tasha, his former classmate from HS 104, was with them as well.
Both of the girls were dressed in all black in a militia-style vest, shirt, and pants. Zuberi’s locs were pulled back and covered by the standard cap that most St. John Soldiers wore. She had a backpack by her side that he knew carried her trusted staff, which had been modified so that it could be collapsed into three parts, making for easier transport. Even if Uzochi hadn’t had the power to read her thoughts and experience her emotions, he’d have known how to discern the determined expression on her face. She reached out and touched his hand, and he gripped hers in return.
“Another vision, buddy?” Zuberi asked. Yes,
Uzochi wanted to say, a vision more confusing than any of the others. He could only hold on to scraps from this one, bits of memory that made no sense even as he tried to put them together. Still, he could feel the sensation of sand between his fingers, the smell of the ocean invading the alley where he and the girls hid. In the memory, there was a figure on the beach . . .
Adisa, the great Nubian elder who had shared his consciousness with Uzochi in the moments before he died. Adisa’s memories had risen often, random and unbidden, in Uzochi’s mind over the past several weeks since the elder had passed on. And he wasn’t sure why.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Zuberi said, her soft lips curving to a half smile that drew Uzochi’s attention back to her.
“You’re right. Yes,” Uzochi said, straightening up. Like Zuberi, he was cloaked head to toe in militia black that allowed them to blend into the shadows of the alleyway. He found the thick padding on the clothing bulky and cumbersome, not at all to his liking, but he didn’t complain. He knew why they had to appear to be St. John Soldiers. Once they moved from their spot in the alley, they would need to be able to get to the massive elevator towers that would ferry them to the city’s wealthy Up High quadrant with as little drama as possible. They had gone over the plan extensively and trained and drilled and practiced and trained some more for days, practically to the point of exhaustion.
“Don’t worry,” Uzochi told Zuberi, dipping forward so that their foreheads touched. “I’m here. We’ll get Vriana. I promise.”
Zuberi clutched his hand just a bit more tightly. Even though she nodded her head and gave a faint smile, Uzochi was an empath. He could sense her concern that his eerie visions were becoming a distraction right as they were embarking on their mission. He would never intentionally read her thoughts without her permission, but he felt her pressing other emotions toward him. Emotions she wanted him to feel.
Gratitude. Trust. Worry.
A sense of it all being too late.
A sense of it all not being enough.
“Your plan, it’s a good plan,” he reminded her, even though he wanted to say Fuck the mission
and take her in his arms. “We’ve practiced, prepared for all sorts of contingencies. We know what to do.”
Uzochi quickly turned back to the gleaming silver towers, noting once again how they dominated the landscape of Central Park. Not too long ago, he had come to the park every few weeks and stared at the elevators. He would stand there, grasping the straps of his immaculately clean scholar-pack, ignoring the people surrounding him, and daydream. He imagined that he would soon earn a scholarship to a prestigious Up High university and become one of the few lower-city New Yorkers to ascend, to establish a life for himself and his mom in the sky, free of the threat of flooding and nonstop work and the taunts and insults routinely hurled at Nubians.
His dreams of ascension came to an abrupt end when waves of teenage Nubians began awakening to extraordinary powers, gifts that were in fact their birthright. Adisa and Uzochi’s mom and others had revealed that back in their ancestral homeland, Nubians were defined by their connection to a primal, universal force known as the kinetic, which bestowed them with uncanny abilities. The existence of these gifts was kept hidden by the adults in their lives after fleeing the storm that destroyed their island home, having lost their own connection to the kinetic and arrived on the shores of New York as refugees with no power. A sixteen-year-old academic star, Uzochi had awoken to his abilities as an empath, a telepath, and, apparently, a telekinetic. But most importantly of all, he was a so-called Nubian catalyst, the individual who would guide his people to the next stage of their evolution. Adisa had proclaimed this almost immediately after learning what Uzochi could do. According to the elder, Uzochi’s powers of the mind were tremendous, as evidenced by how he had guided dozens of young Nubians to more easily awaken to their powers. They were now known to many as the Children.
The awakenings had attracted the attention of Krazen St. John, the tycoon security specialist responsible for running so many of the businesses that comprised the Up High, the sparkling oasis of a city that floated above Central Park. The technologically advanced Up High was heralded by the world as the treasure of Tri-State East. And Krazen’s private militia of St. John Soldiers was seen as key to maintaining the peace both in the Up High and in lower New York.
But Uzochi and most Nubians knew the truth: Krazen was a ruthless manipulator, having managed to get scores of Nubian kids who were part of the gang known as the Divine to join his forces, training to work as a special unit of his militia. The sky king had sent the Divine to attack the theater that the Children had called their home, and then had blown up the seawall that protected the Swamp from the seawaters that were a perennial threat to Nubians. It was all done so that Krazen could send a message to all of Tri-State East: that powerful, dangerous beings were now in our midst, and that the only way New Yorkers and the rest of the nation would be safe was for Krazen to have them under his control.
Though Uzochi and Lencho and a couple of other Nubians had managed to seal the breach in the wall and protect the Swamp from being completely destroyed, saving countless lives, many of the surrounding structures had been damaged. Shacks precariously perched on stilts had collapsed into the flooding water, leaving countless people homeless, and the outdoor Nubian market had been swept away. Even though the Children had used their powers to clean up the quarter the best they could, the Swamp felt like an even more dangerous place than before, with a compromised seawall flanking fragile homes that seemed to be on their last legs.
Crowding into a small Swamp apartment that was undamaged, the elders had deliberated on this state of emergency with Uzochi at their side, as befitting his status as catalyst. Zuberi and her father, Thato, stood among the group as well. Within hours, the elders had decided that the community had no choice but to leave the Swamp and seek shelter in whatever structures were available. They considered the area just west of their location, the collection of tall, empty buildings known as the Crumbling City. But it was quickly decided that the once-monumental edifices would be far too dangerous to set up camp in, having become nothing but hollowed-out, waterlogged skeletons.
And so they looked slightly north instead, zeroing in on the huge building known as the Rotting Jungle. The space was notorious, having been the former headquarters of the Divine, but that didn’t matter now. The elders had decreed that Nubians who lived in structurally sound buildings could stay in the Swamp if they so chose, but the bulk of those who lived in shacks on stilts would move to the Jungle and the surrounding abandoned buildings.
“But . . . but that area is, like, almost completely gang territory,” Uzochi said, his mind still spinning from the recent turn of events. And then he remembered the other issue they’d have to contend with—Elevation, the addictive lower-city drug that supposedly made people feel like they were flying free and living in the sky, like those who’d ascended to the Up High. “And what about all the people there who’re Elevated out of their minds?” he added. “There’re dealers and junkies all over that neighborhood.”
“Which is why staying in the city is not a viable option,” Thato chimed in, pounding his fist in his palm. “It’s far too dangerous. We must make other plans. As a collective, we must flee
this cursed place or we will most certainly be hunted.” Ever since the awakenings had started to occur, Thato, an entrepreneurial security specialist, thought that Nubians had to abandon New York entirely. It was only at Zuberi’s behest to stay with the others that he hadn’t upped and left with his daughter.
The elders had stared at Thato and Uzochi after their remarks, Uzochi feeling waves of annoyance mixed with deference directed at them. Then someone stood up, an elder known as Beka, a bespectacled woman with a round, full face and smooth skin who had her salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a bun atop her head. Uzochi abruptly realized that she was the only elder wearing makeup.
“Uzochi, Thato, your concerns are noted. Thato, we continue to weigh your wishes on this matter of our relocation. This will take time, as you know. And Uzochi, revered catalyst”—Beka bowed her head slightly when she said this, as did most elders—“our community has awoken.” She spoke with a slight smile on her face. He could’ve sworn her eyes were smiling as well. “The world knows who we are. Do not fear. Dealers and these junkies, as you say, will not bother us.”
And so, just days after the flooding of the Swamp, most Nubians moved en masse less than two miles north to the SoHo area of the lower city. It was a weird time, with individuals and families occupying rooms and apartments directly across from other New Yorkers who had abandoned any semblance of a functional life, having given themselves over to two or three glowing purple pills a day. The promises of Elevation usurped all else.
Copyright © 2023 by Omar Epps. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.