Episode 1 – Willow’s Choice
Look at them. At their jeering faces, taunting me. They all think their lives are so perfect compared to mine, compared to the foolish girl who ‘threw it all away’. The mothers are tutting and shaking their heads, blaming my lack of a role model and covering their daughters’ eyes from the spectacle. The fathers either lift their sons onto their shoulders to help them get a better look, or crouch down to their level to lecture them on why women can’t be trusted. And so, with crowds of people watching eagerly and Media Drones filming it all for the next anti-anarchist publicity spot, I was escorted in a procession through the streets of New London. I thought I saw Mum and Dad amongst the throngs of faces, but maybe that was just wishful thinking, that they wanted to see me one last time, even if it meant them joining my condemners. It was like a public execution; the most exciting thing to have happened in the city for decades, and you could feel the rush of excitement crackling between everyone like unearthed electricity. Then we came to the commonly nicknamed ‘Death Lift’, a transparent elevator made almost entirely of an acrylate polymer and rigged to a propulsion system. It stood menacingly in all its recently forgotten glory, unused for the last 50 years. I stepped inside, turned around and, unable to hear the Prime Minister’s televised speech through the soundproof panes, I began to reflect on how I got into this mess.
It’s strange to think of how my life once was, what choices brought me to this moment. It’s the year 2350 and you wouldn’t think from looking at me that I would ever be a troublemaker; I’m just a scrawny girl, 5’7 with long brown hair and a fairly flat chest. But my boisterous tendencies and inquisitive disposition made my personality incompatible with the world I lived in. I had been raised like any other child; running about the underground streets and listening to the Prime Minister drone on about new disciplinary measures on the Tele-Wall (whilst ignoring my next assignment on ‘the importance of Cohabitation on Earth’). Yet the course of my future, as it turns out, was not as simple as many of my school friends. The truth is, as I grew up, I grew tired of feeling impotent and inferior to my male compatriots. I also couldn’t think of anything less exciting than marrying and sleeping with Jeremy Blair, the senator’s son. It wasn’t just because he was about as aesthetically appealing as the turkey birds we read about in History, but I simply objected to the whole pre-arranged set up. Yet those were the rules, we had to keep women in line somehow after all… But these inappropriate ideas truly exploded into being when one day, when I was just 17, my parents died in a nuclear dust storm on a trip to the Overland. I was devastated, it not only left me bereft of my family, but ripped me from the security I had come to rely on. But the really twisted part? Their death also freed me. It led to the next two years, filled with outspokenness, subtle insurrection and propagandist property destruction. Sadly however, I was not as subtle as I thought; caught by a Surveillance Drone defacing a virtual billboard, I had to be disciplined.
So as I stood in the courtroom, holographic faces of primped, self-righteous men peering down at me from their lofty pedestals, I was read my crimes. I was branded a vandal, anarchist and worse, a feminist. Not only that, but being orphaned with no extended family landed me in the dangerous category of independent. I pleaded guilty to all the charges. They would have told the public I was a criminal regardless, so why bother denying it? I also didn’t regret my actions. The Judge Superior conferred with his colleagues, leaned forwards and announced my options:
“Willow Thompson, for the crimes you have committed, there are only three possible sentences which you, as an independent, may choose from: life imprisonment at Daggenham Fortress; the recommended Cohabitation Rehabilitation Scheme – with an accelerated marriage plan for you and Mr Blair; or exile to Pandora.”
Of course I had expected the first two, but this last option took me by surprise. A startled gasp escaped my pursed lips and a flash of uncertainty took hold of my previously stoical face. Pandora?! The stories my father used to tell me came hurtling back to the forefront of my mind. I could picture him kneeling by my bed every Sunday night. With his deep, dreamlike voice filled with a sadness I could never quite identify, he would say:
“Willow, never give in to temptation, never give in to the arrogance and curiosity which all women possess. 300 years ago, the cosmological physicists discovered a doorway to another world at the zenith of a rainbow. Over half of Earth’s women, led by a group of vile Misandrists, believed that they could run a world better than the men of history. They migrated to this other world to create a matriarchal land. Their decision was foolish. So, my darling, this is why all fathers must take responsibility and tell their daughters what happened, as a caution to all young girls on Earth. This world we call Pandora, without men, collapsed into turmoil. With the foolishness of women at the reigns, there could be no other way.”
At least that is the story I was told. But surely, surely there couldn’t be a fate worse than the life I was already living? So, with a deep breath, I raised my gaze to reach the panel’s eyes and uttered those terrifying words: “I choose…Pandora.”
Then, for the next two weeks, I had to be kept in isolation as we waited for the next rainbow to appear. My box of a cell consisted of four metal walls, a small sun simulator screen and an electronic hatch where my microwave meal of the day would be zapped into its inedible being. My mattress was so thin it was pointless; clearly insomnia was an encouraged method of further punishment. Not that I could sleep anyway, my brain was constantly active with nervous anticipation. My mind felt like a whirring computer, overheating as it tried to process an untested algorithm. Every night I would stare at the ceiling, my eyes lazily focusing on that scuff mark just off-centre, which had likely entertained a thousand inmates before me. I imagined two different scenarios for what Pandora would be like. The preferable version consisted of a peaceful world of harmony, where women ruled freely and perfectly, just as they had set out to do. Yet there were the invasive voices of my father, the Prime Minister, Jeremy, all chiming loudly together as one, reminding me of the other possibility – was I going to Hell? Would the women have all been reduced to impoverished cannibals? Is it true that they steal away men from this world to keep their race alive, throwing any boys into a fiery pit? Those were the tales that all children were told before bed, to keep the girls compliant and the boys wary. But my curiosity was getting the better of me, I was ready for an adventure, whatever the rainbow might bring.
At least, that’s what I thought. But now, staring out at the familiar faces of the only world I’ve ever known, a sharp grain of doubt was irritating my temple. Too late. I watched my past life slip away as, with a briefly sickening sensation, I was suddenly jettisoned upwards. I saw the dark silhouette of New London disappear beneath me. When I broke out onto Earth’s surface, I saw for the very first time what true London looked like. Destroyed. You could still see the plumes of smoke and nuclear ash around the crater that was once one of the greatest Overland cities in the world. I climbed ever-higher, still on what I soon saw to be the most exquisite spectrum of colour; a blend of varied beauty. The sight was sadly short lived; just as I pressed my hands against the walls of my container to peer closer beneath me, I felt the panes shudder. A flash of staggering white light, shrouding me in blinking confusion, blinded me and I fell to the floor. I shut my eyes tightly and breathed deeply, slowing my heart rate down. And as the scintillating white particles behind my eyelids calmed, I felt my vision drift back to me and I opened my eyes…
Episode 2 – Dawnling
There was no fiery furnace or chaotic abyss. That was far from the scene that greeted me when I opened my eyes. I had found myself walking through a waiting room of sorts. There was a reception desk, a series of coffee tables and rather elegant wooden chairs, with swirling etchings like carved calligraphy. However, there was no receptionist, no administrator, and no inhabitants for these chairs. An inch-thick film of dust seemed to suffocate the furniture, with not a footprint to be seen, and the ‘Welcome’ sign hanging above the exit was slightly skewed. It’s not like I had expected to be received with open arms. In fact, what I had had in mind was more along the lines of a pack of crazy, flesh eating hags waiting hungrily for my arrival. Of course I was relieved to have avoided this scenario, but I have to admit, there was a small part of me that felt a pang of disappointment at the anti-climax of it all.
I strode out into the open air, inhaled deeply and was taken aback at how fresh it was, almost delicious. So this is what the real stuff was like, no artificial air regulators here it seemed. Raising my hand to my brow, I squinted through the natural sunlight to see where I had landed. Rubble, abandoned carts and widespread scorch marks in the dirt. It smelt of heat, of burnt tar or the way I would imagine a singed shadow might smell. Straight ahead of me was an expanse of empty space as far as the eye could see, its former constructions in a still slightly smouldering heap at my feet. The terrain was low, with steep hills of deep green foliage on either side of the ruined stretch of land. I was in a valley! What had happened here? I thought. Is there anyone left? Have I been sentenced to a life of isolation in a strange, abandoned world?
There was a stillness to the air. Something in the lack of noise made my neck cringe backwards to meet my rolling shoulders, as a shudder possessed me.
Then it happened. All I heard in time was the crunch of a dry leaf to register that I was very much not alone. Then an arrow flew into the air, made a barely distinguishable clicking sound, and split into a hundred more. I ducked behind a low wall and watched as they rained down heavily and I heard a few yelps of pain from the rubble. The rubble? I looked closer and noticed the deep crimson seeping from where the arrow had hit a crumbled boulder in front of me. Then the image flickered like a computer screen trying to rediscover a frozen image. Except when it readjusted, what I saw was not a boulder, but rather the body of a woman. Eyes open with surprise, holding her stomach as she haemorrhaged brutally, till with a flicker of calm she died almost immediately.
I wanted to watch on but my arm was wrenched behind me, turning me to face the assailant who had crept up behind me. I shielded my face; ready for the blow of a primed fist but nothing came…I peeked through my fingertips and saw a young woman in her early twenties, not much older than I, with a bemused expression on her bronze face. Her brown eyes were tracking up and down my body with incredulity. She was staring so hard that she almost didn’t move aside in time to miss an arrow flying at chest. She dodged it enough to get away with a graze, but when it landed in the dirt behind her the fletching[*] started flashing red, increasing in speed. She grabbed me and shouted “Come on!” with such authority, that I pelted with her towards the tree-covered hill on our left. We heard the explosion less than a few seconds later and saw the hole in the ground where we had been a moment ago, covered in the same scorch marks I had noted earlier.
Spurred on by the adrenaline of nearly dying, I ran as fast as I could, trying to keep up with my mysterious saviour with difficulty. Finally we stopped near a lake and I tried to catch my breath and push in the stitch I had had for the past mile or so. So, before I had the chance to compose myself, the woman grabbed me by my t-shirt, shoved me against the nearest tree and lifted me with her arm, to the point where my toes could no longer touch the ground. Winded, I gasped for air as she roared in my face “Who are you? Are you one of the Guard? A Spy? Tell me the truth or you won’t get a second chance!” I was petrified by the anger burning in this woman’s glare and started to splutter and stutter a response. “Pl-Please, m-my name is Willow. I d-don’t know what you’re talking about, who are the ‘Guard’? I only arrived from Earth today, Pl-please you’re making a mistake!” At these words the woman let the tension drain out of her shoulders and her eyes soothed. She lowered me back to the ground gently,
“I’m sorry if I frightened you, I had to be sure it wasn’t a trick – that you are who I thought you were…I was just surprised, we haven’t had a Dawnling in Sophrosynia in almost 50 years”
“A…Dawnling? What’s that? And is Sophrosynia the name of that ruined town we just came from?”
“You’re a Dawnling, it’s what we call all Earthly newcomers. Are you joking? that city was Ankytah! Sophrosynia is the name of our world – Why? Where did you think you were?”
I blinked, processing this rush of new information, “where I come from, we call this place Pandora to mark the great sin of the women who came here…but I like your name better” I added hurriedly for fear of offending her and adding another bruise from the tree. The woman nodded, satisfied once more that I was certainly no spy. “These are dark times to have come Willow, we will keep you hidden at our camp and tell you everything you need to know. My name is Lloreldri by the way, of the Sapphite Clan” and she smiled warmly.
As I followed her past the lake into a clearing, I finally allowed myself to really look at Lloreldri. She was tall, with brown hair a shade lighter than mine with powerful thighs, which must be why she was such an impressive runner. She was packing away what looked like a grey velvet material into a small pouch strewn across her shoulder, which as it flickered, I realised was the way the seemingly invisible people had disguised themselves back in Ankytah. She was also clad in a kind of brown leather bodice, a belt of throwing knives with a razor sharp looking boomerang magnetised to the back of it. I was lucky she had paused when she did behind that wall, clearly Lloreldri was a woman of action…We crossed the clearing and walked up to a wall covered in auburn vines, draping themselves beautifully onto the floor. “Here we are,” she said, with what I believe was a hint of pride. I didn’t understand and looked for a trap door in the ground or a house in the trees. But then Lloreldri reached forward and, like a flowing curtain, pulled away the façade of vines and walked through. It must have been made of the same camouflage material as her portable cloak! Following her lead I looked both ways to make sure I was alone and with a small buzz of excitement, stepped forward once more into the unknown…
Episode 3 – Arisne
It was like no village I had ever seen. Far from my former life of concrete and grey, I had just walked into a natural refuge of vibrant colours. Leaves of subtle shades of green and trees of brown and white bark, with knots of a slightly purple hue and roots crawling back out of the earth with their strong, gnarled fingertips. As I inhaled the taste of recently tilled earth confused my tongue, a palate both foreign and yet strangely familiar. I couldn’t quite distinguish where their houses were, I was looking for the sandstone materials I had seen at Ankyatah, but all I could see initially was the clearing. Then I saw a flap open up like a window at the foot of one of the trees my eyes met those of a nosey child peering at me from her dark tent. Once again that camouflage material proved its worth. As I digested this wondrous sight, I didn’t notice the gathering hubbub of curious faces until I was stood in the shadow of an elderly woman. For all the wrinkles seared into her face from years in the sun, her presence and power was undeniable. I offered my hand to be shaken but she just ignored it and stared so intensely at me it was as though she was scanning my brain. I opened my mouth to speak when Lloreldri pushed me behind her with ease and said “Mater, forgive me for bringing a stranger into the camp, but she isn’t a spy she is –“
“- A Dawnling, I know. Calm yourself child, you did well to bring her here. Though what of the rest of today’s events?”
“We successfully made it as far as Ankyatah, but our ambush must have been detected as they were ready for us. Most of our troop retreated in time but Thestya…she…she didn’t make it and bled out before I got to her.”
Mater sighed, “What a tragedy, I’ll tell Ahetre myself, then join you and the Dawnling after you eat something, we must all keep our strength up even in the toughest of times…”
Feeling a little shy and awkward at this exchange I had been staring at the ground until they finished. I looked up in time to see the elder woman move away, her long, worn cape trailing over the leaves behind her as though in mourning.
Lloreldri placed her hand at the small of my back and gently steered me away from the mutterings of incredulity and suspicious gazes at the lanky, pale intruder in their camp. I was trying to understand this strange world, I think I was in shock and passively I allowed everything to wash over me, to soak in when I was ready. We headed towards a large horizontal slab of stone where a few women were laying out what looked like fruits on large palm fronds and tenderizing bloody chunks of meat. I had only ever eaten rationed synthetic meat before; we ran out of uncontaminated livestock a few years before the Overland went Nuclear, apparently my ancestors weren’t big fans of sustainable farming. This looked bizarrely much more appetizing. As I took a bite of the incredibly juicy flesh of a soft purple fruit, I heard a shrill, wailing noise and looked behind me. The Mater woman had a hand comfortingly rested on the shoulder of a sobbing woman who had slumped to the floor inconsolably.
“That’s Ahetre, Thestya’s partner” Lloreldri murmured, averting her eyes quickly from the scene, urging me to follow suit. “Thestya was the woman you saw die earlier, they had been together for over ten years, I can’t believe she’s gone! At least their children are old enough to fend for themselves – Thank the Goddess!”
“Is it true that you abduct men from earth to impregnate women, then kill them off along with any sons?”
Lloreldri looked horrified at my question, her fists tightened with anger and her shoulders grew taut.
“Is that what they say down there?! That we are women so desperate for children that we would stoop to men, and then be so petty as to kill them? We would never kill a child in cold blood!”
“Then how do you have children at all?”
“When we arrived on Sophrosynia, our geneticists had already worked out that through splicing our X chromosomes, it would be possible not only to have children but for them to always be girls, which I suppose worked pretty well for us and the women’s regime we were trying to establish.”
I was relieved to hear that Earth had been wrong about this much at least, and thought on this for a while as I gnawed on the most delicious, genuine cut of meat I had ever had.
The sky was darkening and by the time Mater made her way over to us, a large fire had been prepared, with parcels of folded cloth nearby for seating. As we warmed our limbs and settled down comfortably, Mater said “I think it’s time we gave you a name young Dawnling”
“Um, I already have one? My name is Willow,” Lloreldri dug her elbow into my ribs, reminding me to be more polite, “but thank you, Mater.” She chuckled.
“Oh I know you had an Earth name, but it has always been the custom that upon her arrival, a Dawnling must shed her old life and be given a new one in a naming ceremony. Usually this would have taken several weeks and would have resulted in a grand festival in your honor, but I am afraid we do not have the resources we once had. We also cannot delay naming you, for an Earth name would draw too much attention to yourself and would make you a prized possession should the Guard ever catch you.”
Lloreldri cleared her throat and at a nod from Mater proceeded to say,
“Willow has shown surprising wit in battle, and I sense great strength within her, I suggest we call her Arisne”. They turned to me, seeking my approval, I tested it, I extended the Ah sound, flipped the tip of my tongue upwards at the clipped ‘r’ and settled into to gentle ‘ne’. Yes this name felt good, strong but not arrogant. My reaction clearly made them both happy as for the first time I saw the softer features of their faces. As we all beamed, music piped up from around me and some of the women began to dance around the fire, looking fantastically wild in its fierce glow. Mater called another elderly woman to her and ordered a ‘stylus’ to be brought. Two minutes later she was brought what looked a little like a small gun, yet it was a dark metallic green with a nib on the end. She turned to me, asked me to bear my shoulder and Lloreldri squeezed my hands saying “this might hurt a little”.
Before I had a chance to ask what was happening, I felt a needle scratching deep into my skin, twisting and turning, drawing. I gasped briefly but forced the tears back down, I wanted to be brave like these women. The needle soon stopped, and a clear salve reduced the pain to an ebbing ache. Mater held up a small compact mirror, and I saw this simple yet beautiful black swirl that trailed down my shoulder blade. It was like those runes I saw on the waiting room chairs back at Ankyatah and now that I looked, it was just like the one on Lloreldri’s shoulder. Mater smiled again and in a reverent voice declared “With the Goddess as my Witness, I formally invite you into our clan. Welcome, Arisne of the Sapphites”. A cheer went up around the camp and for the first time in years, I felt like I belonged somewhere…
Elishna O’Donovan (Fiction Writer)