Maverick Life


A love letter to science fiction, set in Botswana

A love letter to science fiction, set in Botswana
'The Arrival of Drakons' by Francis Gerard book cover. Image: Totem Productions Ltd / Supplied

The young adult novel’s protagonist, Zade McDonald, is a San bushman teenager with special powers. He can speak to animals, read minds, and connect with preternatural forces. But dark forces already have a grip on Zade, and he has some tough choices to make.

Author Francis Gerard shares his name with his father, an early 20th-century author. Storytelling has been a big part of his career too, as a photographer, then later as a film and television director. He describes his new book, The Arrival of Drakons, as a love letter to science fiction that “began as a story told to my children at bedtime and over time the storyline has morphed into the present novel written principally for a [young adult] audience, but adults too have enjoyed the dramatic thriller. With a unique lead character in teenager Zade McDonald, the fascinating setting of wild Botswana, and my intricate knowledge of shamanism, [it] is hopefully poised to become a breakout sci-fi hit.”


Chapter 1

Many eyes watch me, willing me on. Pain is building throughout my limbs. My head is about to explode, but I know I mustn’t stop dancing. It seems the entire village is here for my initiation, and I don’t want to let them – or myself – down. 

I knew this might happen. I knew I couldn’t just dance. That I would need to query the point of the dance and its validity. But that’s me, always questioning everything. Grandpa has tried time and again to get me to do things, to go for it, and to question later. But what can I say, that’s just not me! In the end, in this dance, I decided it would be simpler to just do it. Grandpa wasn’t about to give up on his dream.

I am in the middle of around twenty-five dancers, most men with one or two women surrounded by a circle of clapping and singing women. Older women take it in turns to sing the solos, and the rest join in harmony. Smoke and sparks billow up from the great fire at the centre of the circle as someone throws another log onto the flames. 

Our dancing group are mostly wearing shorts, and sweat drips off us as we surge forward, feet stabbing the ground, shaking the rattles tied to our ankles, making a circular dance track in the dirt. The ankle rattles and the clapping drive us dancers on, providing the energy that’s powering us all. 

I choke, and my eyes run as I gasp for fresh air, but I know I mustn’t leave the dance track. Ahead of me is Bao, an experienced shaman, as is my grandpa, Kao who follows me. 

I feel safe having them on either side of me. Ndo has the go-pro and is recording the dance for my blog. I tune in and let my body feel the rhythm. Grandpa Kao’s words are alive in my head: ‘Don’t concentrate, just open up your mind and let the dance suck you in. Remember it’s a shared experience, not a personal one.’ It’s been all too easy to hear this from Grandpa in training, but it was his next instruction that had me really freaked out, ‘To heal others, a shaman must die and be reborn into the state of !Aia.’ Now I’m really petrified. How do you deal with your own death aged fifteen?  

Time is losing meaning for me. I’m so tired I’m ready to quit, but it would gut Grandpa, and I can’t let him down now. The dance intensifies, keeping the n/um, the spiritual power, hot. I clip Bao’s heel and stumble towards the fire. Grandpa Kao’s gruff voice barks from behind me, and I’m just able to stay upright and away from the flames.

I look up, steadying myself, and smile as I see old Ma Nunka standing behind the singers. But then I realise that her body appears to be shredding and falling to pieces; her aura is black and badly decayed. 

I don’t have time to wonder what it means. My legs tingle and my calf and thigh muscles jump and twitch. Sweat is pouring off me. I know that trance isn’t far away, and the terror is getting to me. Unseen knives slash and peel away whole parts of my body. Then the n/um, the power, boils over and trance proper begins. 

The chanting women begin to elongate and bend out of shape as I pass them. Kao and Bao are now dancing alongside me, watching intently. Bao holds out her hand. I grasp it, but it’s like ice, and I shy away from her.

Bursts of jagged lightning blind me and there’s a most horrible stench, like rotten meat. Everything has gone into slow motion, and I can hardly breathe. Kao and the other dancers are melting away, as is my body. I yell but hear nothing. In the fire at the centre of the dance circle something huge, dark and coiled writhes with menace, screaming to be released. 

I’m about to reach into the flames when I’m suddenly sucked upwards into a tunnel of blistering bright light, spinning into the air, up, up into a sky throbbing with lines of white dots and circles that stretch away into the night sky. These are the powerful ‘n/um lines’ that I’ve been looking forward to seeing, hundreds of them: lines that connect everyone and anyone worldwide. 

All sound has become muffled. Everything around me is stretching, like a gigantic rubber band and it seems about to break. It’s as if time itself has slowed to a crawl.

As the dancers fall away below me, I float upwards, now gloriously at peace.

From far, far away comes a hum. The vibrating power line I’m holding onto stretches northwards above the Tsodilo Hills. In the far distance, the powerline appears to end in sudden darkness. It’s not night: it’s a more complete darkness than that – a huge, devastating nothingness that exudes terror and menace. 

As I watch, two extraordinary creatures break through boiling clouds, hurtling towards me as if fleeing the darkness. 

One is ten times the size of the other, as long as a football pitch and as tall as a marula tree. The creature’s vast, dark-red body weaves and flows as it soars through the air. Massive, outstretched silver wings slowly beat up and down. 

Its companion is much smaller. It’s a delicate pale blue and green, with red stripes along its back. It dances and spirals without effort around its colossal companion. I’m mesmerised, because these two beautiful creatures are straight out of ancient mythology: tearing through the sky towards me are two dragons. 

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I’m uncertain if they are fighting one another or it’s a game they’re playing, but they approach and sweep me up into the night sky between them.  

As the large dragon circles me, a forked tongue flicks from an open mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth, below which hangs a bright orange beard. Two curled horns crown a vast grey, reptilian head; piercing slanted eyes the size of soup-plates bore into me. 

I turn to the smaller creature whose delicate face is wreathed in a sublime smile, full of joy and life. Of love and affection. And it is a smile that is as familiar to me as my own heartbeat: the smile is on the face of my long-dead mother, Xumi. My mum! I shout and scream and find myself laughing and crying all at once. This is … incredible!

But there’s something else. Something unsettling. The smile on my mother’s dragon-face wavers, and I somehow know that she’s frightened. Is it the larger dragon – is that what she’s scared of? Mum, I want to say, Are you safe? Are you OK?

I try to reach out for her, but behind her the darkness has grown larger and thicker, and now the powerline and the whole night sky, together with the Tsodilo Hills, are being obliterated – they’ve just, disappeared

Then, with a bang, everything stops. It’s as if an almighty metal door has been slammed shut. The dragons disappear, and I begin to fall, spinning out of control into the darkness. I know I’m in trouble but can’t see or feel anything. I’m rudderless, directionless, and truly afraid.

The shock of impact snaps me awake. Very slowly things come into focus. I’m lying alongside the fire. Above me Kao, Anu, Bao and Aunt Shira all look down at me. As one, their concerned faces break into a smile. 

I try to smile in return, but I can’t move; I’ve never felt so tired. The dance is now over, and most importantly I can now call myself a shaman. DM/ML


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