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 her fingers.
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?
Read the full excerpt here: Underlined
Buy Nubia: The Awakening: Amazon
Excerpt from NUBIA: THE AWAKENING published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Omar Epps and Clarance A. Haynes.