JOY: THE PRESENT
Joy paused at the leeward arch, her hand feeling the stone. A flood of memories assailed her. She shook her head and forced those memories back. She had to find out what had happened to her people.
She stepped forward on shaky legs. The city screamed its wrongness. It was still bathed in warmth and light from the Light of Joy, but where was everyone? She followed the steps down another level, her eyes darting, trying to see everything.
She couldn’t see the Protectorate’s Spire, the light was too dim, but she knew where it was supposed to be. She made her way, cautious of silt, sand and debris. She started to regret leaving her foot coverings on the surface. Shoes, she thought as she cataloged everything she saw. Anything could tell her what had happened.
She advanced on the stairs until she came to a crumbled pillar blocking her way. Even lying on its side, it came to just below her shoulders. Her joints still ached from her decent, and she knew there was no way she’d be able to climb over it.
Idiot, she chastised herself. You’ve lived on the surface far too long. You’re still thinking of a world that no longer means anything.
Joy tensed her knees, filled her lung with air, and pushed off the stonework. She flailed her arms to keep herself upright, and she easily cleared the pillar in a single bound. She exhaled and landed gently on the other side. She was happy with her ingenuity, but her brief jubilation was usurped by her realization that her actions were incompetent. Down here, she was not limited to bipedal locomotion. She felt foolish, and kicked away from the stairs.
She performed a barrel roll, following a helical path, landing several paces away. Joy allowed herself to ‘fall’ and float above the ground. She kicked with her legs, and felt the sensation of flying through the water. The freedom was empowering. She was no longer held down by oppressive gravity. She couldn’t understand why she had to train on the surface, but she vowed to quickly unlearn the ways of the ancients.
Joy smiled as she kicked her legs and soared toward the great spire. She had traversed a great distance, but something called to her. She felt compelled to change course away from the great spire.
She travelled for a few moments before she realized she was heading for the great arch. The arch that housed the Light of Joy.
She imagined the arch filled with her people. Stacked row upon row, all facing the fading light. She saw herself swim proudly up to the crystalline form, and take her place as the protector of her city. As her skin crystalized, she would look down and see her parents gaze upon her magnificence with a pride they dared not act on, but everyone knew was there.
Her reverie was disturbed by a single thought: There is no one here. Was she to protect and warm a city abandoned by its denizens? For the second time in less than a day, she wondered if she had chosen the right path that day in the great spire.
She increased her speed. The Light of Joy would hold the answers – she knew it. But… The great spire made more sense to her. She could swim to the top of the spire and sink into the great arch. Perhaps someone waited in the spire and could tell her what to do.
Joy stopped, torn between the two outcomes. One didn’t necessarily preclude the other. The pull of the Light of Joy was strong, but she knew she was stronger. She controlled her own fate. She had responsibilities, of course, but she had ultimate control. The freedom of choice was what conflicted her so.
When she was small, she simply followed the instructions of her parents, her Dons, and her society. She had learned so much in the last four years. She’d begun to doubt the ancient ways. The stringent caste system, the gender roles, they weighed on her mind. She wondered if too much knowledge was a bad thing.
No! She chastised herself again. Part of what made the Light of Joy so special, so profound, was that freedom. The choice she faced, all Joy before her faced the same thoughts, the same worries, the same…
The flow of her thought dissipated as a new worry crept in. What if she wasn’t good enough? She had only trained for four years. What would Madam Vess taught her in the days leading to the ceremony? Her mind flashed back to the crumpled form of her mentor. She remembered looking up at the balcony, a tuft of the Madam Vess’s dress wedged in a deep crevice of the wooden railing.
Joy had assumed her mentor was the victim of accidental whimsy. But what if… What if Madam Vess had leapt to her death? What if she wasn’t good enough? Strong enough? Worthy enough?
Self doubt. It was the quintessential fear. She needed joy to combat the compounding dread. A joy that could only be found in one place: the great arch. She remembered the feeling of Joy at the ceremony so many years ago. She made up her mind and swam towards the arch she could now see in the low light.
The Light of Joy hung there, unmoving, its otherworldly presence commanding even in its faded form. She tried to derive joy from her.
Joy swam up to the holiest of holy places in the Sunken City. She circled the crystal once, then a second time. It called to her. It beckoned her. All she had to do was reach out and touch her…
Her hand hovered near the angular surface of the Light of Joy. She needed only to flutter her feet to overcome the scant distance.
Joy jerked her hand back and spun toward the voice of authority. The voice of a young man with scars framing his face. The first of her people she had seen since she returned to the Sunken City.
Next: Light of Joy