In South Africa, the future looks promising. Personal robots are making life easier for the working class. The government is harnessing renewable energy to provide infrastructure for the poor. And in the bustling coastal town of Port Elizabeth, the economy is booming thanks to the genetic engineering industry which has found a welcome home there. Yes—the days to come are looking very good for South Africans.
That is, if they can survive the present challenges: a new hallucinogenic drug sweeping the country; an emerging AI uprising; and an ancient demigoddess hellbent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters.
It’s up to a young Zulu girl powerful enough to destroy her entire township, a queer teen plagued with the ability to control minds, a pop diva with serious daddy issues, and a politician with even more serious mommy issues to band together to ensure there’s a future left to worry about.
Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods will capture your heart… even as one particular demigoddess threatens to rip it out. Available June 13th from Harper Voyager.
Sydney Mazwai cusses herself as the roundabout sucks her in like a soap bubble circling the drain. She gets no respect on this piece of crap moped—rusted handlebars, no rear fender, expired license plate. But there’s no point in worrying about being street legal when she’s doomed to spend eternity doing clockwise circles in the midst of Volvos, Land Rovers, and tricked out bot taxis looking for an easy fare in the crowded streets of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Victorian-style buildings pass by again and again, like the backdrop of a 1930’s gangster movie car chase. The blare of a tour bus horn sets Sydney’s nerves on edge. She’d spent the bulk of her morning coaxing coffee residue out of an all too empty can, hoping to churn up enough black gold to get her through her commute. Now Sydney grits her teeth as she passes the eighth beanery on her way to work. Dropping forty rand on fancy coffee drinks isn’t an option, though, not when the rent check is three days overdue. She’ll settle for Ruby’s tart brew at the nail salon. It tends to taste faintly of acetone, but it goes down smoothly enough. More importantly, it does its job: injecting caffeine into her bloodstream as quickly as possible without the aid of a hypodermic needle. And while, yes, it’s supposed to be for customers only, everyone in the shop knows better than to get caught standing between this Zulu girl and her morning Joe.
Sydney holds her breath and leans, cutting sharply in front of a bot taxi. She glances over her shoulder and laughs as the mono-eye of its robot driver flashes red, road rage mechanical style. Her happiness is short lived as a sea of brake lights greet her on Harrower Road. She can’t be late if she’s going to hit Ruby up for an advance on her paycheck. Reluctantly, Sydney lifts her index finger and draws upon a fragile force within, but then pushes it back down. The lights will turn green on their own soon enough. There’s no sense in compounding caffeine withdrawal with a stomachache as well.
Sydney grits her teeth, hops the curb, and motors down the pavement while swerving past bustling pedestrians, a late model alpha bot running odd errands for its master, and a dreadlocked street musician tooting on an old bamboo pan flute. His staccato song flutters Sydney’s heart, and she puts her shoulder to the wheel, pushing her little 49cc engine to its limit. At last, she cuts down a series of familiar alleyways, dodging ornery dik-diks rummaging through the overspill from a restaurant’s rubbish bin, and kicking past a stack of wooden pallets from the Emporium her salon shares an employee driveway with. Sydney props her moped up against the side of the brick building and takes her helmet inside with her. At least it has some value.
She stumbles in, beelines straight to the coffee carafe, and pours herself a tall cup. The earthy aroma puts her at ease, and the warmth of the cup pulls the morning chill from her bones. But before she can take a single sip, Ruby’s right there, glaring with those eyes too wide for her face and an unlit cigarette dangling between her lips. “You’re late,” she says, hands propped on her hips. She juts her chin towards the reception area. “Mrs. Donovan is waiting. She’s not happy.”
Sydney glances down at her watch. She’s three minutes early actually, but her clients expect nothing less of her than to bend space-time to accommodate their schedules. Especially Mrs. Donovan. Sydney rolls her eyes, grabs her alphie off its dock on the shelf, then puts on a smile that’s somewhere south of sincerity but north of keeping her job.
“You appreciate me, don’t you?” she says, clicking the alphie’s on switch. The robot’s screen yawns to life, and its spider legs extend down from its round silver body until they clink against the floor with the sound of a rat tap-dancing on a tin roof. Sydney strokes her hand over the smooth dome surface, and the alphie coos like a beloved pet—all preprogrammed, but it’s nice to feel needed nonetheless.
“She’s waiting!” Ruby’s voice comes from out back as she snags a quick smoke.
Sydney grimaces, then slips into an apron. The alphie follows behind her obediently, its myriad of compartments containing all her nail supplies, color palettes, and doggie biscuits—staples of the job. Sydney tries not to let it go to her head, but she’s the best nail artist Ruby’s got. Ruby knows it, and the other ladies know it. They’re shooting her scowls right now, in fact, but dare say nothing to her face.
They know better. She ignores them, and lets her body settle into the smooth beat of classic Mango Groove piping softly from her alphie’s tin speakers. Her spirits lift as the caffeine begins to take hold and the jazz fusion instrumental loosens her nerves, and suddenly Sydney feels like she’s capable of enduring whatever nonsense Mrs. Donovan intends on spouting at her today. Mrs. Donovan is an arrogant heifer of a woman, but she tips generously when she’s in a good mood. Very generously. Maybe even enough for Sydney to get her landlady off her back for a few days.
Sydney leaves the alphie at her station, then wades through the menacing stares of her coworkers, especially Zinhle Mpande who used to do Mrs. Donovan’s nails. Sydney smiles brightly at Zinhle, gives her a little wave with her fingertips, then broadens her chest to greet her most loathed customer.
“Mrs. Donovan! My heavens, you look radiant today,” Sydney says in the most saccharine voice she can muster, then switches from English to Afrikaans to earn some extra brownie points. “Like you swallowed the brightest star in the sky.”
Mrs. Donovan flushes, splotches of red on her paper-white skin. Her features are striking—sharp nose, brilliant green eyes, lips maybe a little too full for someone who claims pure Dutch descent—though she’s hardly what anyone would call a beauty. Maybe she could have been, but she’s full of vinegar, this one.
“Precious, you’re too kind,” Mrs. Donovan says, shoving her way past Sydney and walking swayback towards her station. “Though it’d be kinder if you didn’t leave me waiting out there like yesterday’s laundry. If it was up to me, Precious, I’d take my business elsewhere, but Sir Calvin van der Merwe just wuvs you sooo much!” Mrs. Donovan reaches down into an enormous A.V. Crowlins purse, pulls a sleepy Zed hybrid out, and aims his head at Sydney’s cheek.
“Good morning, Sir Calvin,” Sydney sings, trying not to cringe as his reptilian tongue creeps along the side of her face. The best Sydney can guess is that he’s a whippet/iguana cross with his lean legs and gray peach fuzz fur peaking between patches of scales, but of course it’d be impolite to ask, implying that his creation was something other than an act of God.
Sir Calvin smacks his rubbery iguana lips, then immediately begins barking, which sounds more like something between a whistle and a sneeze. It’s annoying as hell. Sydney fetches a doggie biscuit from one of her alphie’s compartments and snaps it in half.
“May I?” she asks Mrs. Donovan. “They’re from the Emporium, 100% organic ingredients.” Which of course is a lie, but it makes rich folk like Mrs. Donovan feel better. Sydney doesn’t blame her. If she’d dropped half a million rand on a designer pet, she wouldn’t want her Zed hybrid eating stale grocery brand biscuits either. Sir Calvin doesn’t mind and snatches it out of her hand before Mrs. Donovan answers. He curls up into Mrs. Donovan’s ample lap and chews greedily, giving Sydney a long moment to regain her wits.
“So it’s a mani/pedi for you today?” Sydney asks, pulling a nail file from its sterilized packaging. “Special event this evening?”
“A fundraiser for Councilman Stoker.” The councilman’s name practically oozes from her lips.
Sydney decides to pry. That’s half the reason why she earns the fat tips she gets. She’s a confidant to these ladies. Stuff they wouldn’t tell their therapists or trust to put in their vid-diaries, they spill to her with ease. She’s nobody to them, after all. Just a poor black girl stuck in a dead end job, struggling to make ends meet. She doesn’t swim in their circles, so who cares if she knows about their infidelities or indiscretions?
“He’s handsome, that Stoker,” Sydney says, buffing away at the ridges in Mrs. Donovan’s nails. Working two jobs, Sydney normally doesn’t have time to keep up with politics, but rumor has it that Stoker’s about to throw his hat into the race for Premier of the Eastern Cape. He’s an Afrikaner, but he’s as genuine as the boy next door, and the rampant rumors about his enormous endowment probably don’t hurt his popularity either. Especially among those constituents of the feminine persuasion. “You know him? Personally, I mean?”
Mrs. Donovan fans herself with her free hand, rose splotches once again springing up on her cheeks. “The epitome of masculinity. Precious, if I weren’t married…” she trails off, then takes a moment to compose herself. “Yes, we’re good friends. Our families have been close for centuries.”
Sir Calvin begins yapping again, and Sydney hastily shoves the other half of the biscuit in front of him.
“Centuries, you say?” Sounds like the perfect opportunity to hear a long and convoluted story about how Mrs. Donovan’s family came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War with intentions of raping the country of its precious metals and gems. Not that Sydney needs a refresher history course since she’d actually lived through it nearly two hundred years ago, but it’ll give her a chance to do the thing that’s the other half of getting those fat tips. Sydney grabs a small bottle of organic botanical oils and squeezes a drop onto each cuticle, then she rubs as Mrs. Donovan drones on incessantly about her lineage. Warmth buds inside that empty space right behind Sydney’s navel, and it travels up– prickling like the skitter of centipede legs–through her chest, over her shoulders, and down her arms, and then finally into the pads of her fingertips which glow as subtly as the sun peeking through gray winter clouds. Mrs. Donovan’s nails lengthen, just a few centimeters—enough to notice, but not so much to raise suspicions. Sydney then rubs out all signs of imperfection and hangnails.
By the time she gets to the left hand, Sydney’s stomach is cramping, but it’s nothing a couple of aspirin won’t take care of. When she’s done, she reaches into her alphie’s bottom compartment and pulls out a bottle of clear coat, keeping it palmed safely out of sight. The empty spot inside her grows as she reaches into Mrs. Donovan’s rambling thoughts and pulls out the shade of the dress she’ll be wearing tonight. Sydney clenches her fist, envisions a nice complimentary color, and opens her hand to reveal a feisty shade of mauve.
“Oh, that’s perfect,” Mrs. Donovan says as the first coat goes on. “I swear, Precious, the colors you pick for me are always spot on. Sometimes I think you can read my mind.”
“With your skin tone, there’s not a shade that wouldn’t look lovely on you, Mrs. Donovan.” Sydney winces at the burn in the pit of her stomach, but manages to put on a convincing smile. It’s a small price to pay to keep her more generous clients loyal. Plus it breaks up the monotony of the day, reminding Sydney of a time, centuries and centuries ago, when her powers weren’t limited to quaint parlor tricks. Her smile becomes more genuine with the thought, but then Sir Calvin starts up with the yapping, and all at once her headache’s back. Sydney goes for another doggie biscuit, but Mrs. Donovan shakes her head.
“Too much of a good thing,” she says, then leans back into her chair, eyes closed and fingers splayed carefully apart. “Don’t want to spoil his appetite.”
Sydney tries to tune Sir Calvin out, but he’s right there in her face as she gives Mrs. Donovan her pedicure, which is torture enough with those meaty bunions of hers and heels that make even the roughest Emory boards envious. Sydney’s already pushed herself too far this morning, but she draws anyway, rubbing her warm hand under Sir Calvin’s throat. His bark mutes, though his mouth keeps moving, which angers him even more. He nips Sydney, soundlessly, but drawing blood. Sydney seethes and gives him the eye. There’s no way this little monster is going to cost her her tip, not after all she’s put into it.
“Oh, what a playful little boy,” she coos at him, stroking his head, pushing thoughts of calmness into his mind. The emptiness presses up against her ribcage and threatens to break through. She forces it back, looking for any spare nook, enough to make this damned Zed hybrid go to sleep, but his will is too strong. Sydney promises her body that she’ll give it time to heal, and she’ll even feed tonight if she has to. A small cry of pain escapes her, but finally the Zed hybrid lies still in its master’s lap. Sydney doubles forward, catching herself on the leg of Mrs. Donovan’s chair.
She takes a quick glance around the salon, hoping her foolish antics have gone unnoticed, but Zinhle Mpande stares back at her fiercely, her thick jaw set, cheeks tight, eyes intense like they’re filled with the knowledge of every single one of her Zulu ancestors. She grabs a stack of towels and stalks towards Sydney’s station.
“Fresh towels,” she says perkily in English, before slamming them down beside the alphie. She whispers in the Zulu tongue so that Mrs. Donovan can’t understand. “Haw! I know what you are.”
Sydney gulps, then moves her attention to Mrs. Donovan’s heels, scrubbing feverishly at them with an Emory paddle. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says sweetly in return.
Zinhle clucks her tongue. “Umuthi omnyama,” she says, picking up a bit of biscuit, then crumbling it in her hand before storming off. Black muti, dark spirits conjured through doggie treats nonetheless. Great. Sydney closes her eyes and sighs to herself. She’ll have to be more careful. If Zinhle thinks she’s a witch, it’s only a matter of time before the other ladies find out. Even if they don’t believe it, rumors are enough to cast suspicious looks in Sydney’s direction, making it harder to do those things she does.
She laughs at the idea, wishing it were that simple.
Excerpted from The Prey of the Gods, copyright © 2017 by Nicky Drayden.