Light in Hand
Teaser from the Upcoming Novel by Joshua Stelling
Arch & Gravity Publishing, 2021
I am the song of mercy, death.
I am the one that moves over these desolate roofs, flat like the night, under low clouds. Everything, once, was the new world.
Before the Night came though I was like anybody else, just a girl, insignificant, young. A shard in the alley. All of the good die young, like the world. Glisten with the cold sun, high off. I felt like a flame, with the passion of a breaking star. But I would flicker with the breeze, and I knew it. I loved bright colors but wore more darks, painted my nails black, wore trails under my eyes. Boots in the sun. I never understood this world of ash. Born into the future it was hard, for organic me.
I think I was mostly animals in past lives, because this world to me is a cage. I am the violent lioness. As a cub I was tossed in with the rest. Ignored. See Urbania comes in waves of walls, sheets of glass, high towers over pale, ashen roads. So there’s no hope, generally, of finding yourself. The Oma, our strange, tall, dark teachers, stand with straight kimonos, corralling us into school, every day from when we’re very young.
Armbands of the bleeding sun. Billions of us wore that mark. Before the Night came only a few of them saw the spark in my eyes, but it was not unlike the mark itself. A leaking star threatening to burst. Fissile material. Urbania swept me up like a shard of glass in this alley, methodically separating the exceptional, a robotic vacuum humming over the pavement.
Daylight came on white asphalt, new, the street adjoining the alley. I was in my uniform, gothed up how I liked it, in regulation darks, a jacket, leggings under pleated skirt, my thick boots, in a cold that was almost snow.
The shadows were longer than the sunlight then, and the darkness before the murders was every bit as black. The truth however was never mute, to me. It took so long to become words. In the corners, blades of grass fought through seams of cement, veins struggling, scars in the rock.
People are not born for dollars. Flesh and blood is not yours to measure. Your science of economics is like a yardstick in a rainstorm. The generations you enslaved to your principles of chastity are a ghost in a tidal wave, come over.
If I preach you will forgive me. I will not disguise my agenda. My approach.
Nor what hangs on its talon end.
Nothing has been darker than the lightness of that city, clean. The Night that fell over us all thereafter was but a brighter shade of midnight, still. The river of blood I’ve borne became at last – at least – vital; dark, thick, a sign of life.
No longer sterile.
Give me your fallow land and I will give you death, and you will welcome me.
The sun was cold, distant and small in the sky.
So innocent was I.
I stood alone, through the stretch of a moment. Perfectly flat asphalt, isoed, smagnetized, buoyed a biker past, fast, sparkling with notyetfrost. Sounds of heavy traffic rustled like an ocean of heavy leaves, but wasn’t seen, somewhere on the other side of the buildings. The wall behind me now was pinkish, like a fish. This road was calm. I waited for the light to change, standing there. I improvised a poem, as I was likely to do back then, quietly, in my head. It went through a few revisions as I came along, but the result was not entirely without rhythm,
This cold sun
Is like a beating heart
Seeding between the tiles
The hourglass of dawn
And the sands deep blue like water
Curl into day
Slow River of stone
I’ll admit I found certain pieces as if from a voice in my head, and if they meant anything direct to me then, it was locked behind my subconscious.
Smart magnets stopped the hovering traffic as the green light shone, saying “Walk.” Blinking. A flurry wafted down, white on gray, with a gust at my back, and I tucked my hands deeper in my jacket pockets. It was just a courtesy, the sign. Of course it knew I was coming across, and the automated traffic was stopped automatically for my safety, in such a magic of digital clockwork that most peds wouldn’t even have hesitated for the reading.
But I was harder to predict than most, there’s no denying. Algorithms can fuck off. There were times back then when inertia caught something inside of me. Life just – exhaled – through me. The green girl on the sign blinked at me. There were a couple of people in the standing traffic, couched low generally, in the hovercars. The next few that came up were totally empty. Nobody really saw me. Mine were the only feet on that corner.
The moment was like a real hand, dark on my back, and it held me under a spell. Imagination was a blank canvas, everything imprinting on my young mind. The green girl flashed, disappeared. Silently the cars swept forward. The snow fell and a breeze came past. My thoughts were a couplet,
Quick, airfall. Let me fly with you.
I want to see beyond these city walls.
There was no cross traffic for a few seconds. A camerabug – they’re these box-like drones, who knows who’s looking, depending on what one, or why – whirred past me at eye level, kept going. I took a deep, cold breath and stepped into the road.
A red light shone ahead, flashed at me now. Somehow this justified that I was really there. It gave me a rush. I walked, and a hovercar whisked past. Some were too fast practically to see coming, but they were all smart, would go around by design. A gray c-bug whizzed to a stop ahead, at the opposite walk, looking my way.
Something huge passed behind me, fast, this big shapeless truck, so close that the wake actually pushed me forward. Peripherals clear, I started into a run. I remember the boots I was wearing, those boots could take me anywhere. There was no ice and my traction was good.
These side roads were wider than your highways, ten lanes at a pinch. My thoughts came still in poetry,
My electric heart could blaze a path to escape the waste.
And I am not like you. I am not like you.
I jogged to a stop at the other side. Hovers flew past, behind. I kept going, into a walk, and the dronebugs ziffed away into silence. The sign stopped flashing. Fuck you then. My lip curled back.
A different world opened before me as I passed into a diagonal alley, up a flight of stairs, from the ten-lane frontage road toward a real thoroughfare. There suddenly the people were thick. Here a walkway widened over the road. You could see vehicles whisking along, beneath your boots through glass sections of the path. Car elevators turned, on the large garage down the way. The thoroughfare bobbed with people. The flood was in full swing, two coursing rivers of us side by side, both ways. The sanguine gray of Taeyang. The rustling of the disquieted forest. The daero whitened with the quickening snow, on everyone’s shoulders, hats, boots. I stepped into their flow, shorter than the man ahead. Immediately swept along with the crowd.
The sign of the bleeding sun spread huge across the road in a pattern of stones, dark gray tiles between sections of glass. It was too large a pattern and the walk was too flooded with peds to make out the design if you didn’t know it was there. Noticing my feet on the flat mac I crossed over its patterns repeatedly.
White. Black. Tile. Stone. Glass, with traffic below.
Some girl laughed, not far ahead, so I looked up. They were in jama regulation, like me. Urbania yearned skyward. The light out that day was true, through clouds. Szenna was right up ahead. The hood of her gray jacket waved at me as she hurried. I remember bits of snowflake wafting off her hood, like I could touch it, see it right here, still breathe the air of that day.
As a park opened up ahead, the sky was breaking.
Nothing fades. In any case, these days I can remember things I had once forgotten. Details are a storm, but may be counted. I can close my eyes and be there again.
I even see things, the first time I missed.
Szenna’s armband was frayed, just a thread. Her glyph was black, a few hard strokes, in a red circle, the bleeding sun, with seven bars down. This is part of how I knew it was her.
Guyai are genetically enhanced designer trees, large, embracing. Oaks, willows, banyans, all fall short to describe. The grass in the park opened wide and perfect and the flood thinned just ever so slightly. These guyai were greener because of the wetness in the air, vibrant with light, too warm to catch much snow just yet. No signs of hovers, until you noticed the revolvers in the scrapers’ walls, on the sides of the park. They made no sound. People got in, got out, moved on to wherever the hell they thought they were going.
Release me through these walls.
See we were surrounded, essentially inside, there, in the park, despite that there was no roof or dome. The air was filtered, but I didn’t even really know what that meant, then.
That I was the seed of a thing foreboding, is not obvious, looking back at us now. Not for my aesthetic, that goth being common then. Our rebellion, like so many, was only the shine of our innocence, our unicorn souls in a cage of makeup and vinyl. In the shape of time things become clear, the opening lens revealing what the sky could always see. Obscurity, perfection, drama and grace. I was just a young girl, then.
Then I was jogging again, zagging around a crowd toward them. Szenna didn’t know I was there. They turned, splitting off toward class, but when I got there, without thinking I just went straight ahead. I didn’t want to go to jama, so I cut through the clones like a knife, bobbing, momentum carrying me like a wind in my spirit.
I jogged to a stop, unaware of myself like a kid, though I was 13 and probably ought’ve been past a reverie like that.
Needless to say, I was not.
I stood, untouchable in the current. In the park center the flow of people moved around me. A guyai was huge, nearby but behind me. Wet, green. But the fleck of the spray of the coming tsurge, I was for a second or two lost in all of the motion of the scene, spinning though I remained still. My thoughts were clear, my awareness touching here and there, on a coat, color, cloud or a snowflake. There were thousands of flakes, falling slow now, heavy but distracted, the way they do, down toward us. The cold was easy, not yet intense. Though the snow was falling the sky was clearing, and I smiled, just a little at the side, pushing my hands down in my pockets. Depending on who you ask, those gums of mine are alright.
My odd behavior brought a waft of c-bugs, here and there like electric dragonflies, watching me.
For a second I daydreamed of painting those colors, where the blue sky broke through the cotton flames, where the light entered our world up by the gleaming, opaque windows.
I stood still a moment longer, a lost stone in the flood of humanity, before I walked back, snowflakes catching on my jacket arms.
The bleeding sun, shot with these little white crystals.
That mark, on a band, on my right arm.
The Cuhleye. Sen.
When I was a young girl it was a thing of pride to wear the Sen. I came of age in Taeyang, twenty years after the ending of the 3rd World War. The Sen was Urbania, red on gray, the thick circle and bars. Mine shone the original five seo, gifted when I was twelve, bold, there on my arm, and no more.
It was mine a year that day in the park, and I believed, like my sisters, that white was bright, and red the sun.
“Blood of the Lama, one eye of Israel.”
My voice when we recited mantras came as sure as any other in the room.
“The long arc of truth only grows.”
Our meditations, we rows of Cuhleye Korean girls, were often accompanied by no other chorus than our om, low, harmonic. Some days it was a rattle, so much that you wouldn’t have thought it could come from us.
Szenna was a year younger and three rows ahead of me. Our jama had thirty-six girls, from eight to eighteen. Though we were all Korean, living in fascist Taeyang, that had a different meaning than what you’re familiar with. In regulation we were all dressed similarly, though multiple color themes prevailed. Our footwear we left in two rows by the shoji, but rebel culture being what it was in 2082 there was a rainbow of hair colors and styles, skin tones and body piercings. We were all kind of conservative, believe it or not, by your standards rich. My girls had roots in many parts of the world. A few had visible tattoos, dainty though and feminine, shy designs. Daughters of impoverished nations, descended from all parts, we were orphans of the apocalypse, adopted by Seo-Yeon as infants or bred from seedlings.
When meditation came, I was projecting, which is a funny name for imagining, when you really get to it, though a good student would tell you it is different in a few key ways from the average daydream. In any case, my mind’s eye was flying astral through the city. Along the rail was a long stretch, passing countless burroughs, of mostly pale lines, and steel. Further. Beyond the cliffs into free lands.
The edge of the world to me was a mountain pass, high on the gray beams of conflux, trusses, the two-thousand-mile service catwalk. The long train blasting past. My projection rarely went further than twenty miles out, as it was this day, because that’s where the cliffs were, and in truth I knew nothing more of the world back then.
I’d seen these cliffs in magazines and games, aglisten with the luster of life, green, elixir; lovers for my drinking eyes. In projection meditations, I was the light, mantra. A point in the sky, moving. Because all things are moving, I was sitting still. I was a diamond cutting open the sky, revealing the consciousness behind.
“I think so that we are.”
You’ll think it strange how we spoke, in unison, our minds far away from the classroom in vision, our mantras in rhythm and our breathing synchronized.
I was over the rocks and trees, could feel the airflow through my hair. All my hopes were in that ray of light, though it wasn’t real. Feeling out the rails of my consciousness, my imagination flitted in unanticipated directions, but the exercise is not about control.
I could feel my class shirt on my arms, sleeves ending above the elbow, the coolness of the air on my hands, open upward on my bare knees, my lotus a work of daily practice, and neat. There was no obligation for my eyes to remain closed, in deep trance, and I was aware of both places at once.
Szenna was a salt birthstone, halite, and the pale wave of her hair was both darker and brighter than her skin, tucked behind her ear.
Szenna was the one that I wanted to be like, that year. Though she was younger than me and we were both just kids, she was the brightest girl in the rasu. Descended from barons in India, immigrants from America long before the war, Szenna was a soft star given flesh and bone. It wasn’t until years after that I could put a word to it, what set her apart.
The world in all its forms is a gauntlet for life. The good die young, heroes torn apart or crucified, angels driven to suicide. I’ve learned it many times since. The agents of change are often invisible, unconcerned as much with themselves as with you, their unity leaving nothing for acknowledgement.
Szenna was just a girl who wouldn’t be anyone else.
She didn’t live long enough to do anything notable. Few of us did. Rather it was a thing in her voice that was a thing in her soul, a coherency. If alive for even one moment, it lit a spark in me. You may have no idea what I’m talking about, or think it overplayed on the page. Your world is incoherent yet. You’re surrounded by contradictions to the point that they seem more real than the leaves on trees.
The word that describes what I saw in her is ‘character,’ and around it turns the world. It does not mean what you probably think it means.
In our youth we didn’t know how to phrase our instincts. It took me well over a decade to realize, in a thoughtspeck, that I was not a mistake, and that moment was transformative. So for years as they drove us through deskpenance, I coped by painting my green eyes goth, projecting light, and writing poetry. We had turns, reciting poems in front of the jama. Szenna gave hers with clarity, wit and disdain,
Not descended from you
Derivative, narrative, expletive
A shock of light in the bright
If you will, imagine this white, Korean, Indian girl, an orphan, twelve, in front of the thirty-seven of us and the Oma — the mother of the room with her long, sleek, native hair. All of us seated in lotus. Szenna’s salty blonde hair was pulled back, but loose, a lock brushing her cheek. She wore the seo two years ahead, on a modified regulation jacket. No jewelry, no tattoos, skinny, she hadn’t lived with us six months at that time. Her delivery became like a wind, angry and defiant, as if narrating the apocalypse.
Ah, but there were many of those. In truth, nobody was ready for this, what’s coming to your world, sooner than you think. The jama studied history and science, as frequently as our meditations, or martial dance. Another day, on another turn but in that same voice, Szenna had opined about the collapse of imperialism being a direct influence on the architects of New New York. Her lips formed a sentence like fire, and I came a little closer to the edge of my chair each time she finished a thought. The hollows of her cheeks pulled me, toward so much youth and light.
She was sitting again, three rows up, while the other girls presented. Nobody looked at me. I was watching her back, sketching curves and curls, like the waves of her being, with my pen.
Time collapses in a memory like in a dream, traversed all at once by the easiest impulse, but in this narrative I’ll try to keep it clear enough for you to tag along.
Many years later, the darkness over the rooftops was setting in, the final grains of light fading out, and birds were gathering nearby, like they would do.
“Kunsalei.” I can’t speak of that young crush I had on Z, at length, without my Angel Ray intruding on my mind. She eclipsed most of my lovers, after all in time, but carried parts of them, embodied them in so many ways. It’s not fair, Z didn’t last long enough to compete. “Sweet, I brought you a drink.”
When Kunsalei and I were taking respite in those ruined gardens, it was a different world in so many ways from what I’ve described thus far with these pages. Many years. I won’t delve deep into Nightfall just yet, or the O.A.F. and how they dwarfed even the Burst Wars of Seoul, after WWIII. Suffice it to say that from the rooftop where we drank that night, partly naked, glimpsed in the moonlight, the glistening waters between the buildings of Taeyang were deep, moving with the tide, and the dull sparks far beneath those gentle waves, bending starlight, may have been headlamps of hovercars or electric jewelry on drowned bodies, for down there were many of both.
Skin though, skin is like starlight too, and we were still breathing, the two of us in that garden of decay. My Angel wore a sheer mesh jacket, long, tucking in the wind by her hips. We both wore jewelry, like the yellow hairline bracelet I had on, or the slim ankh lain below her collarbone, rising with her breath. Something aglitter in my ear, you might barely see in the night. The rooftop gardens of Urbania were untended, growing out of control. Overflowing, green pretending to be black in the moonlight. Kunsalei held the ropes of her swing, arms wrapped around them at the elbow and hunched a bit forward, now holding her cup. The bent, soft seat swayed a bit, with the absent motion of her ankle, toes pushing against the concrete. The rusted metal framework, silhouetted against the clear galactic sky, was like a dream. She smiled and laughed at me, watching her.
Hers was a light like the crescent moon, a dimpled white desert, and if so then I was a part of her celestial cradle, coming to stand beside her. Our eyes glittered, like jewelry on drowned bodies, so far away, sharing a drink with us, rare wine.
The birds nearby fluttered, one and then the flock, ascended. We looked out over the desolate, murderous darkness, these remains of Urbania, laughing at inside jokes shared between our eyes. At home.
Woe, this fallow land of men. Reject the seed of wisdom.
Rain salted tears.
This selection is incomplete, and may or may not represent the final work
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