Saturday, 30 July 2016
Guest Author Jennifer Withers of Pretoria, South Africa
Jennifer Withers has been writing since she was seven years old, banging out stories about dragons and damsels in distress on an ancient typewriter. She went on to earn a BA in English Studies at the University of Pretoria. Since then, she has taken writing courses through Writer’s Write, and Allaboutwriting. Jennifer lives in Pretoria, with her husband, two dogs, and an ageing cat. The War Between is her first novel.
Following is an excerpt. Copyright is held by the author. Used by permission.
Raven raised her hands. The marking on the back of her left hand glowed and waned in a rhythmic wave. Light pulsed from both her palms. I felt the heat of it from where I stood. Raven pushed the light away from her, striking Emery in the chest, knocking her to the dirt floor of the ring. Emery sprang to her feet immediately, her expression twisting into a mask of fury. She threw herself at Raven, who stepped aside. Emery flew right out of the ring, barely saving herself from landing on her face. She let out a scream of frustration, her face scarlet as titters of barely suppressed laughter filled the room.
Raven crossed to Emery and helped her up. ‘If you let your rage get the better of you, if you lose your focus, you’ll never win. You can beat me, but only if you keep it together.’
She pulled Emery back into the centre. ‘Let’s do it again. Concentrate this time. Don’t lose your cool.’
Raven raised her hands again. Before she could do anything else, a spark shot from Emery’s right hand, slamming into Raven’s shoulder and unbalancing her. She fell to the floor in an ungraceful heap, laughing. ‘Good! That’s what I’m talking about.’ Emery’s face shone with pride, her grin so wide it threatened to spill off her face.
I turned to Draiken. ‘She’s improving.’
He slung an arm across my shoulders and pushed me to the smaller ring where several teenagers stood waiting.
‘Yes she is. But Emery’s not who I wanted you to see.’
He motioned to Trey, a lanky boy who was the one and only Converted of our kind. His presence still unnerved me, even though there had been no signs of instability in his behaviour. The conversion seemed to suit him, but I worried all the same.
‘Trey. Demonstrate for Syra.’
Trey stepped forward silently. His brow furrowed, and his gaze centred on a line of tin cans propped on a table several metres away. One of the tins wobbled, threatening to tip off the edge. Then it rose, as if pulled up by an invisible string. It jerked towards Trey in fitful starts, occasionally pausing and hovering, then resuming its journey through thin air until finally, it landed neatly in Trey’s palm. His smile of triumph was directed at me. I smiled in return. It felt strained.
‘Isn’t it remarkable?’ Draiken asked. Without waiting for a reply he turned back to Trey. ‘Watch again. He’s a Physical too.’
I felt my alarm levels spike. ‘He’s a Dual?’
Draiken nodded, his excitement palpable. ‘Trey. Show Syra.’
Trey took off towards the opposite wall, moving so fast my eyes could barely track him. Halfway across the room he leaped, his feet leaving the floor in a blur of speed. He landed gracefully against the wall and seemed to hover there, his hands and feet flat against the brick. Despite myself, I was entranced. He remained facing the wall, his hands and feet braced against it, for another moment or two before sliding to the floor again.
Draiken grinned at me. ‘I think he’s nearly as fast as you.’
‘Amazing,’ Ray murmured. ‘And he’s a Convert. Imagine the possibilities.’
Draiken shot me a triumphant look. ‘Exactly.’
Trey sauntered back to us, arrogance creasing his face, his eyes burning with excitement. He looked at me expectantly, and suddenly all I wanted was to wipe that overconfidence from his face.
‘Very impressive,’ I said flatly. Disappointment flashed briefly over his face before he managed to arrange his features into a neutral expression.
I could feel the heat of Draiken’s questioning stare searing into my temple.
I avoided his gaze. ‘We need to talk.’
I turned around and made my way down the stairs, heading to the small room off to the right side of the front door. Draiken followed me and shut the door behind him, but not before I caught a glimpse of Ray talking animatedly with Trey, his face lit with excitement.
‘What was that all about?’
I shrugged. ‘You know the boy gives me the creeps. I told you from the beginning I wasn’t comfortable with a conversion. And you went and trained him anyway. We’re supposed to be making these kind of decisions together.’
Draiken snorted. ‘I knew you wouldn’t agree. I was hoping to win you over with his demonstrations. We’re Converts, Sy. And look at us. We’re perfectly normal. We’re not hacking anyone to death with a dinner knife. Besides, the boy came to us. He risked his life to cross The Waste, on the off-chance we’d allow him to become one of us. We need more like him.’
The smile in his voice irritated me. ‘The Creator converted us. He had more of a clue than we do. Do you think President Crane will be pleased if he hears we’re doing conversions on humans?’ I paced the tight corners of the room. ‘You shouldn’t be so flippant about this. You normally take my feelings seriously. Especially when they involve people.’
‘This isn’t one of your sixth sense feelings, Sy. This is you not taking to Trey, which isn’t unusual for you. You’re not exactly the warm and cuddly type. As for Crane – what does it matter? He’ll never find out. At least not until it’s too late.’ He smirked. ‘Anyway the boy could be from any of the human cities. No one knows for sure if Toria is the only one left.’
I shot him a look. ‘This is absolutely not personal. He’s a Convert, and a Dual. What if he becomes unstable?’
‘Then we kill him. The only thing we’ll have lost is time. I’ve had a look at the numbers and we need a drastic increase if we’re going to manage the takeover. You already know this.’
I folded my arms. ‘What does this have to do with Trey?’
‘Converts are the way to get those numbers.’
‘Draiken! You haven’t discussed this with me.’
He held up a hand. ‘I’m discussing it with you now.’ He motioned to a nearby chair. ‘Sit, will you? You’re making me edgy.’
I glared at him but dropped into the chair anyway.
‘We agreed that we would try something other than populating the natural way. There have been increasing reports of more and more couples having trouble conceiving. And when they do, some of the children have been born – ‘
‘Deformed. I know.’
‘Exactly. If more families have deformed kids then we may as well welcome humans into Jozenburg. Those kids are exactly like them. No skills. At least no useful ones.
‘Those that are healthy grow quickly, yes, but it still isn’t fast enough. Not if we’re going to mobilise against the humans soon. I’ve already spoken to the Elders –‘
I half rose out of my chair. ‘Without consulting me? You had a gathering without me there? What the hell, Drake! You said we would lead together.’ His face remained impassive, except for one raised eyebrow, admonishing me without a word. I sank back down, feeling his condescension in every pore of my skin.
‘We agreed that I would oversee the training, didn’t we? That’s what I’m doing. We’ve got to play to our strengths. If you want to change the arrangement then say so, otherwise stop being a prophet of doom and let me get on with things.’
‘Why did the Elders allow you to meet them without me?’
‘They asked me the same thing. I told them I wanted to run it by them first, because you would need some convincing. They agree with me. We can’t convince the humans we need another city, without the numbers to justify it.’
‘I doubt we’ll convince President Crane anyway… Wait. What numbers?’
‘Don’t act stupid, Sy. You know the humans have no knowledge of our problems with procreation.’
‘So the Elders agreed to this ridiculous plan of yours? To convert humans? What about the loss of life?’
Draiken grimaced and shook his head. ‘Honestly Sy. Why do you even think human life is worth preserving? Look what they did to this country – this world - with their greed.’
‘Regardless, the Elders said a hostile take-over was out of the question. We do it peacefully, or not at all.’
Draiken rolled his eyes. ‘Yes – the Elders are quite the idealists. I told them that converting would benefit us all. We won’t take any humans forcibly. We’ll offer them the choice.’
I rose, preparing to leave before my temper made a fool of me. Draiken’s voice pulled me back. ‘I need your blessing on this. The Elders don’t want to force you into it. You know how they are – freedom of choice and all that sentimental crap.’
‘Will they go ahead and do it if I refuse to be a part of this?’
Draiken gave me a look. ‘Yes. But if the Elders decide we can no longer work together then both our positions are in danger.’
‘I can’t agree to this. I think it’s a terrible mistake. We don’t know the exact science of conversion. We don’t know what will happen if one of the humans reacts badly to the change. You could be putting all of us in danger.’
Draiken reached for my hands and squeezed them. ‘I need you on my team. Please. Trust me. I know I can make this work. And if I can’t, if anything goes wrong, I’ll stop. The Elders will never allow bloodshed among our own kind. I need your help with the conversions. Your gifts are too great not to pass on.’
My sixth sense screamed at me not to agree. The warning heat of going against my feeling flooded my cheeks, pulsed like a living thing behind my eyes, throbbed in the hastened beat of my blood. I couldn’t refuse him. I had never been able to, even when we were kids. I owed him too much. Without him, I wouldn’t be here at all. The memories of that night rushed through me, reeking of fear and blood. The screams echoing in the cavernous space of the laboratory. I clamped down hard on them. They went silent. Still I felt them, hovering in the darkest places of my mind, waiting to take flight again.
‘Fine.’ I ignored the drop of my stomach, the sudden film of sweat on my palms. ‘But from now on I want to know everything that’s going on, and I want to be present at all the conversions.’
Draiken hugged me tightly, his excitement enveloping me like an ominous cloud.
‘Thanks Sy. I promise you won’t regret it.’
I nodded and extricated myself from his grasp. I left the room, dread clotting my throat and filling my mouth with the bitter snap of regret.
Discover more about Jennifer by visiting her website. www.jenniferwithers.com