A World of Shade
Darkness strained to overwhelm a triumphant light, the oppressed people burgeoning in numbers to only falter in tenacity.
Even during the brightest of days, we had our Shades, entities granted to us years ago used to portray our rage. They manifested atop of our shadows, often malicious, crimson eyes glistening above awful grimaces. As people of Shades, we fought for our individual lives, but the Blanks fought for their collective existence.
That day, I intercepted a male Blank. Blanks were considered elite, and they shared comparable apathy for my people. It drove me mad. I compressed every impulse to not take his life with my Shade, activated by a simple clench of my fist as the entity mirrored my action.
I needed answers. Traveling from the South to the North on foot took ages. If it weren’t for the countless pairs of boots I finessed along the way, I may have collapsed halfway through my journey.
“The day has come,” I said. “You, an empty canvas comprised of the one color reflecting all colors, your actions engrained in such primitive understanding of how this world should really operate.”
“Even when less in numbers,” the Blank spoke calmly, gazing out of glass windows revealing much of a capital city derelict from years of civil war. The only life that remained fell in the lights emanated by a handful of powered skyscrapers. “We always find a way to prevail.”
“Joke’s on you! The Shades were the edge we needed to spark a revolution!” The only caveat: Shades epitomized torment, and to believe they were benevolent beings was to possess more inane optimism than pious folk battling Stage IV cancer. Harboring a Shade concerned not only the Blanks, but all of us. They were programmed to kill.
“A-Amara,” the Blank struggled to regurgitate, “she did this … kids with their identity crises!”
I loosened my fist.
“You don’t have to do this!” he finished.
“She liberated us. With the human trials, she personified our subjugation into a form of wrath.”
The Blank only huffed, in pain.
Creating such anomalies determined Amara’s demise. She, a Blank liberal who fought endlessly for social justice, died at the hands of an embryonic Shade during one of the trials. Before her death, it was rumored she chanted something related to war. No one knew precisely why, but all of us acknowledged the sentiment.
We soon learned that, even as super-humans—the least offensive of terms the Blanks used to describe us—we remained at a disadvantage.
“I’m not here to harm you,” I watched the elitist slowly stand after being dropped by my Shade, patting dust off of his pristine white garment. I shouldn’t have almost killed him, but for once, we obtained the upper hand. We cornered a Blank elite.
I probed, “It’s Tyland, right?” Blanks used aliases, most of them deriving from mythos or legends of various cultures. Tyland signified the god of deception among some of the ingenious Northerners. Appropriation at its best.
“Yes, father of a northern pantheon.” He motioned to move; my Shade followed. Tyland leered at it from the corner of his eyes as his façade of confidence began to fade, the wrinkles on his face moving from a place of unconcern to trepidation. “Why did you find me?” he asked after exhaling, arms around his stomach. “Even after a few decades of creating the Shades, we’ve retained power. Race is no longer disproportioned. Our planet, her Soil, will eternally fall on either end of the Spectrum, and soon.”
“It’s taboo to refer to that.”
“The Spectrum? It’s a reality, a tool created to assign affiliation. It eliminated the need for true racial identity.”
I laughed, then cackled, before realizing I mimicked an unsubstantial villain from archaic comic books, the ones who often conceded to trite superheroes. “You mean identities that the Blanks have perpetuated for centuries? A means to preserve traditionalist ideologies of inciting hatred?”
I hated talking about the Spectrum. Sadly, many of our people accepted the color-divide extremities. The North only housed the Blanks, and the South was where the darker folk resided. In the Middle lay a combination of rich, poor, and mixed.
“Why do you fight for them, the Soil people?” Tyland questioned. “The sun rises in an hour. You have one choice,” his voice deepened, “Kill me now, or run while you can.”
“Not yet. I want to know your real name. I want to know your motives. Everything!”
Tyland was right, though. Shades were pacified when exposed to natural or artificial light. His rhetoric reminded me of a time I lived in the South. Within the last ten years, the Blank populace had increased there like an unforeseen flood. The weirdest part of it all: Many Southerners shared dispirited views about it, even during the prominence of the North-South divide.
* * *
I wandered the dilapidated roads of the South, paranoia my only companion in the midst of trailing between abandoned, wrecked vehicles. Raiders lurked wherever concealment perpetuated.
Upon passing a local market, I noticed a congregation of Southerners. Everyone hovered around a television. A local news channel highlighted a story about a man using his Shade to fight crime in a nearby neighborhood, beating up civilians who stole or solicited. Petty offenses.
What baffled me were a lady’s comments as she spoke over the drone broadcaster. The lady looked like a Blank, and at that time I was surprised she roamed the South. She seemed familiar. I figured she affiliated as a loyalist, part of an activist group like my own. It was apparent by her garments—suited for travel and combat—a black leather jumpsuit obscured by a cozy linen shawl.
“Good for him. Keep those scum in check with the many gods’ gifts.”
Every word that woman spewed did not settle well with me. I felt a lump in my throat before she rolled the final words off her tongue. Either I retorted, or my esophagus imploded.
“We literally have the arsenal to fight back!” I watched my tone after the folk around me suddenly grew quiet. “They’re outnumbered. Why waste the Shades on shit like this?”
“The Blanks?” the old woman asked after gasping, overlooking all else I addressed.
“Yes. A revolution. If anything, your gods want us to win.”
The lady dipped her head, watching me from the peaks of her eyes. “The Shades were created by the government to amplify Soil-on-Soil crime. The system is corrupt, boy. We just need to deal with it. Carry out our lives and do what we must to provide for the next generation.”
That very complacency was the reason the faction I had joined consisted of only a few members, even though they all died on the journey North. Centuries of disadvantage demoralized the masses. We lived in a period of convalescence, the world’s Soil slowly recovering from centennial affliction. The war was far from over, yet nobody wanted to fight.
Many of us struggled to reform the mindsets of the complacent people rather than combatting the Blanks directly. It became a vicious cycle.
She was clearly a Blank. It was confusing, and that day forever stuck with me.
* * *
“You venture from the South?” Tyland asked, breaking my ruminations.
“Your skin, it’s lighter than I’d expect. I would’ve guessed you’re from the Middle, but you did just try to kill me. If you’re lying because of what we do to your people, then you have nothing to worry about. The South is safe. We made it that way. Your people can live in harmony.”
I slammed my fist into the wall behind me—watching my Shade create a storm of debris before Tyland—his ass meeting the cold floor beneath us. Their version of a utopia resulted after an unexpected civil war among Blanks. In fact, the term Blank never existed until the Rustics were slaughtered by the Pures. The remaining elites never referred to themselves as Blanks, Rustics, or Pures. They’re identities we coined.
Rustics spilled the same hateful rhetoric everyone read in history books. They promoted ignorance and shamed their own for affiliating with us, especially Rustic women. If the patriarchal Rustics cared about anything, it was the mixed offspring some Rustic women produced, and how they plotted to kill them.
Tyland continued, “You’re just a Deviant with an identity crisis. We’ve put measures in place to assure your success in the Middle or the South.”
I cleared my throat. “Deviant? You’ve made no paradise in the South. Many people still struggle!”
“Why are you concerned about it? You’re light-skinned. Our measures exist to assure your success. It is troublesome that you’re showing symptoms of deviance. Especially now.”
I assumed I was born a bastard. My mother and father were Pures, but not so much myself. I came into this world with melanin so profound that a silent death, after my mother pled to wait years for my skin color to adjust, slowly became my fate. I remembered the freezing tip of a blade pressed against my throat—countless times—my father threatening my mother to end my life without approval from his superiors. He was that vindictive about maintaining a Pure bloodline, and to that day, my skin never showed indication of blankness.
My mother was probably involved with somebody else. There were still mixed folk who achieved successful careers and maintained happy lives in the Middle. I didn’t know my real father, but he had to have been dark, perhaps alike my Shade.
“It seems you’ve really come to talk, using your Shade to coerce me. Do people accept you for who you are down there?”
“I’m the same person, regardless.”
“Your skin tells a different story. You came to learn the truth about your Shade, right?”
I remained silent. I didn’t journey for that reason, but I considered the prospect of Tyland telling a compelling story. None of my people knew exactly why Shades existed.
“Preservation,” he declared, “Our kind cannot manifest Shades. It is genetically impossible, and the risk of finding a way is far too high, assuming you know how low our numbers are. Our agenda to stay alive as long as possible takes precedence. Why do you believe we killed the Rustics? Why do you think we destroyed every anti-Blank movement that came to fruition?”
“No one knows,” I replied faintly. “For your latter statement, fuck you.”
“We cannot ignore that very lack of logic and reason in our world’s Soil.”
“They are second to you, and you come after them like predators!”
“We!” I corrected. He pissed me off with wordplay, stalling to assure his safety once the sun rose. I had a contingency plan, like every person should.
Tyland postured to a comfortable position. “For centuries, Rustics plotted to kill every Soil in existence, a simple symbol of their flawed pride and envy of the Soil people. The Coalition of Pureness, or CoP, was a group of mainly Rustics at one time, the best example I can give you.” He nodded his head once to check if I were listening. I widened my eyes, and he knew to continue.
“Although they reformed many times over the years, the foundation of their existence as an extremist faction was enough to rationalize wiping them out, even at the expense of lowering our numbers. No harm was done. Ignorance isn’t welcomed in the North.” He stared at my Shade before attempting to stand and continue. I allowed it. “Except, the darker folk weren’t Rustics’ only target—every Soil was—including people like you. As time passed, male Rustics knew they couldn’t win, so they began to harm their women too, their children. We didn’t need a bunch of incompetent men sabotaging the paradise we planned to foster. The line between the North and South is very fine, and the majority are happy with it.”
“True opportunity is only found in the North, with the Blanks. Also, it sounds like you just wanted an excuse to kill the vulnerable bunch. Only your people are capable of something like that.”
“Our Soil has allowed inner-group hatred and violence to take place for centuries! Do not speak to me as if they don’t also encourage massacres!”
“Never to the point of genocide!” I snapped, taking a few seconds to pull myself together. “So, what’s the point? Why the damn history lesson?”
“Shades are provoked via mental and physical instability. Thus, many complacent Soil folk who have Shades cannot manifest them correctly. They slowly digress from their points on the Spectrum, becoming lighter or darker over time.”
That didn’t make any sense.
The sun showed signs of life, seeping through the crevices of the city buildings. We were many stories high in a suite. I knew I could quickly kill Tyland, but doubt tickled my mind. His narrative sounded too fabricated, but then again, I possessed a nebulous and monstrous shadow. I sunk into Tyland’s unveiling grandiloquence about Shades and Soil, and I didn’t want to admit it. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you were engineered like the rest. You also made it to the North. Not a single person has made it this far.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We once lived in a world of purely black and white, no middle ground, and the light always conquered. That changed over centuries. But with advancements, we’ve achieved an opportunity to revert back to tradition. Ultimately, we never fail to prevail. Light overwhelms all, such as when the sun rises and gives birth to a new day.” He extended his hand back to the glowing city.
I grinned, allowing the light to penetrate my pupils as a symbol of my animosity. “What your people desire to cast out is rich and of true substance and refinement!”
“Such poetic conviction but little knowledge of how things really work.” Tyland sighed after shaking his head. “You sound as if you wish to destroy the world.”
My Shade dithered, reacting to the sunlight. Even the smallest ray of light triggered immediate anguish. It crept away, falling where no light reached, and retracting back until it coalesced with the shadow my body normally produced.
“I knew you wouldn’t do it! You wouldn’t feed into that insolent plan of killing me!”
Tyland made for quick escape. I was unsure of the veracity behind his statements, and I still planned to capture him. But first, I had to check something.
I stared out the window at the sunrise. Dawn was pretty, even in a world of chaos. I soon contemplated whether Tyland fled to seek backup and try to execute me for my crimes, or to find a new abandoned city to hide in. I realized he wasn’t going to kill me. He had no way to. After all, even during the brightest of days, we had our Shades. And even under direct light, they protected us from the inside.
When the natural light penetrated my skin, I absorbed an agonizing truth. Of those forced to participate in the procedures—to become mutated entities, some on the frontiers of war—our skin fluctuated. At that time, mine shifted Blank.
What Tyland revealed was partly true. The Blanks had created a system to further demonize my people. Even with the term Soil, though mistaken as a compliment—meaning earthy to few—the entire structure set up by the Blanks strived to venerate Blanks and degrade us into dirt. I had to chase Tyland and kill him; I knew that much. God of deception, indeed.
Scurrying out of the room, I flung open doors, turning intensely at every corner of an azure chamber at hopes of intercepting Tyland.
Before long I stood before a barricaded conference room at the crux of the building, hearing chatter on the other end. I acted, the door bursting open after meeting the sole of my boot.
I witnessed a congregation of my father and mother, older siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, even second cousins. My sanity finally diminished into a state of impulsivity, malicious intent spilling from my fingers aside the sweat, alike the monsters the Blanks perceived.
Tyland waved his hand in my direction. Without a word, my father pressed a button at the far end of the room. A latched opened and hogtied bodies fell down from the ceiling as lightning touching the depths of the planet, like damned animals in a factory farm. An innocent couple struggled to escape torment, two persons who looked identical to me and my kin. Then, my father slit one of their throats.
“No!” I yelled.
My folk intercepted me. I somehow took many steps into the room, unconsciously acting to stop my father. He took his knife and swiped again, but that time at the woman.
“What’s the damn point of this!”
I witnessed it: My father’s complexion gradually changed from blank to peanut-brown, as some epidermal plague.
“You’re all Soil,” Tyland interceded. “With the Shades, we live in harmony, if we decide not to engage in violence. And—”
“And!” I interrupted with a bellow.
“There are countless elements determining which location our Shades fall on the Spectrum. Harmony is the strongest of aspects that influence a Blank transformation. Anything other than peace or placation, essentially, exacerbates it in the other direction. You’ll live your life as a Soil because you’re a Deviant. Most people eventually transform, for a plethora of reasons.” He chuckled pompously. “Over years—sometimes decades—with enough concord or suffering, Permanence cements, respectively. Witness the only member of your family who has yet to achieve pure Permanence, your father!”
“Permanence? The procedure … how many people have had it!”
“A little more than ninety-seven percent of the nation’s people, unlike the small percentage you’re led to believe. Every Soil baby born in a public or private hospital undergoes the genetic alteration. It is a simple process. Boy, your father didn’t want you dead for your skin color, but because of the mere fact that you’re a Deviant.”
That was the third time Tyland used that word to describe me. “D-Deviant?” Then it struck me, a bolt chiming at my spine. The people I crossed who couldn’t manifest Shades must have had the procedure conducted on them. They were fated to live a life of degeneration, such as the woman I met in the grocery.
“You were predictably born with a higher risk of engaging in behaviors influencing a Soil manifestation. And we were right. Almost cost me my damn life, but I have faith!”
“No,” I muttered, quivering in my flesh. Tyland, and every Blank who followed him, knew the truth. My family had been manipulated to fall into complacency, and that pacified attitude is why they were Blanks from the beginning.
I pulled out a pistol, watching my taunt strike sudden fear in my beloved. I pointed the gun at Tyland first, but the lights powered off. I couldn’t see, and I immediately heard every beat of my heart raid my eardrums, each clamor pumping through my limbs and chest.
At first, I didn’t want to kill anyone but Tyland. I pulled the trigger anyway, gunfire reverberating in my ears. I awaited an indication of a direct hit, but all my senses were compromised.
The lights came back on. I hurried, searching the room with my eyes. I saw my father first. He previously flipped the switch, and his shadow reverted back to a normal state. The bullet was deflected by his Shade, and Tyland had vanished. Again.
I let arrogance put me in that situation, and I grew disconnected from the people standing before me. On instinct, I shot at my father again, fragments of his brain splattering on the wall behind him, unable to rationalize why murder felt so liberating, and why he didn’t use his Shade to protect himself.
The rest of them reacted robotically, turning their heads in snappy twitches only to gawk at me, without emotion. Such blandness, they didn’t seem to care, and a flurry of sensations in my body made me want to vomit. Slaughtering the inhuman felt right, but the reality of my people being turned to Blanks did not. I didn’t care for my family, though I did feel something for desperately wanting to execute one of my own: utter guilt.
They were all pawns, I tried to justify. My father killed two Southerners, so the decision came easier to me. Even if they had been my people at some point, they weren’t anymore. I killed them. I tried to kill them all until I ran out of bullets. Only my mother remained.
Idly, she stared at me. I didn’t make much of it at that time, but her lip twitched, followed by her left eye. Rage overwhelmed me, a sense of commitment too. I had to finish the job and conveniently a glass shard glinted on a table aside me.
I seized the shard and stabbed my mother, giving retribution to the two dead Soil hanging from the ceiling. Exhaling, I began to hunt for Tyland, but the lights shut off again.
As I reached for my lighter, I grew more nervous, jumbling all the accessories in my pocket. I eventually whipped it out to hear fiendish cackling behind my attempts to spark it.
Behind a flame, my Shade glared at me, its ruby pupils and canine teeth shone over an epithet of cosmic blackness. That was the first time it ever focused in on me, and I didn’t have time to question why.
A buzz sounded, and Tyland spoke over an intercom as the lights flared on once more: “Go back to the South. Your work here is done.”
“Deviants cannot be allowed to live. What we witnessed supports necessary regulation to eliminate infants deemed deviant. We are steps closer to purification!”
“You’re allowing me to live! What are you talking about!” I asked too many inconsequential questions, yet finished with one more, “Why are you turning my people!”
The Shades allowed for a binary to exist, and for a long time the toughest of my people believed it was a gift to fight the oppressors.
When I thought Tyland had left, he made one last comment before the static, indicating his intercom use, faded: “Your Shade is as vicious as ever.”
Examining my Shade, I tried my best to contain any fearful urges to shiver in its presence. It smirked, as if it accepted me, or perhaps wanted to gut me for my insides. I never dreaded the idea of death, but picturing a gruesome one always struck me cold.
My Shade didn’t disappear with the light. Blood dripped aside me like a clicking faucet as I dropped the glass shard, recognizing I had gripped it too hard. I glanced at my hands, the chariness of my skin—the Permanence Tyland referred to—it progressively solidifying. My Shade must have envied it.
Tyland probably expected me to travel back South and slaughter anyone who came in my path. For a moment, I wanted quite the opposite: to be rid of my Shade. I pondered picking up and swinging the glass shard, to witness my Shade dissipate into thin air, blowing away a poisonous miasma like a nonchalant wave of a passing pedestrian. Something calm and cool, heroic. Rumors held that those who had tried to destroy their Shades vaporized to the smallest cell. I just wanted to win, to rescue my people. Though, that was far from my reality.
* * *
Months passed, and I ascended before dozens of Soil in the South. They appeared mostly as Blanks calmed to their conforming dispositions, including a willingness to listen to me. I hosted gatherings to weed the passive out, to find people like me, who the Blanks coined Deviants. I knew from their restlessness, from their sudden grasps of what I expounded, those who were worthy of following my pact to find and slay Tyland and the remaining pantheon fathers. And we were limited.
“That’s how it happened,” I resolved, “How I learned truths about our Shades. I speak to all of you—as one of you. With our Shades, we exist as an equipoise. Without light, there is darkness. Without darkness, light isn’t promised. To create a purely black and white world—and to restore their own by manipulating our people—that is their endgame.
“Imagine a view of our plenty from space, a shade caressing its exterior formed by not only the sun’s rays, but also the absence of light. We constitute the shade, as entities that must exist. Even during the brightest of days, a shade will cast, and one day it’ll overwhelm.” My Shade and I shared brief eye contact, my lips curling at our mutual sense of vengeance. It moved to hover over me as I peered at the crowd, and those who appeared loyal to our cause, quickly found motive to manifest their own.
About the Author: Delvon T. Mattingly, who also goes by D.T. Mattingly, is a fiction writer and poet from Louisville, Kentucky and a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Michigan. His short fiction and poetry have appeared or is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Jellyfish Review, Star 82 Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his two cats, Liam and Tsuki. Learn more about his work at http://delvonmattingly.com/.