Today, being a woman is like being at war.
There are some events that challenge your entire self-perception, the image of you that’s projected into your own mind. Your mettle is put to the test: hold fast… or fall. It may be artificial, insidious, evil… but that’s what the payload’s been for all women, myself included.
I’ve always fancied myself the strong, fearless businesswoman. But the reality of spending every day with this curse, for months, has taught me this: I’m no frontline soldier.
Fittingly, given the metaphor, I’ve bunkered myself in at home. That’s a bit humiliating, I suppose. I, Celeste Short, youngest female executive in the industry, have become so scared of my own shadow that I only leave my house when strictly necessary.
That’s a defeat, right there, make no mistake about it. I may not have given in to a collar yet, but I’ve let men take the outside world from me. From inside the safety of my cocoon, I’ve watched the outside world reeling, women’s rights retreating, our independence being chipped away day after day.
Across multiple countries, female lawmakers have had to give up their seats… after all, what if a hostile actor collared them, and induced them to treason? For similar reasons, only men have voted in the subsequent by-elections. Our legal liability has been taken away, but with it, has gone our very emancipation…
Temporary. It’s temporary, only until the payload is undone. And yet I live in fear of what’s going to be taken from us next.
By themselves, my hands travel to my throat, caressing the smooth skin. My neck is bare, and collar-free. No matter how many times my brain is bombarded with traitorous images, visions I would have never before considered hot in my life…
Visions of wiry fingers, knees hitting the floor, lips on the tip of a man’s shoe, performing due reverence to the half of humanity that’s always been, and always will be in charge…
I snap myself out of the reverie, willing every fibre of my being to stay with me. I’ve made it this far. It’s been months now, since the world turned upside down. Surely it won’t be much longer before a solution is found. I can’t believe we’re actually about to have our very first Christmas in this new nightmare world… but I very much hope it will be the last.
Immediately after the payload upended the world, I shifted to permanent work from home, and thankfully, no one in the company has stood in my way. I know many other women worldwide haven’t been as fortunate as me. Between my generous wages, deliveries, and the equipment in my home office, I’ve been able to barricade myself against the tidal wave of male power.
But, as I stare in stupefaction and horror at my computer screen, I tell myself that this peace was always going to only be temporary. That the outside world wouldn’t stay outside forever. That eventually, it would find its way in.
And it has. Oh my, it has.
I’m being summoned back to the office. In person. For, or so the work email states, a bureaucratic matter of utmost urgency. I don’t know what it could be, and for a second I consider whether this may be a mistake, but… I gulp, shaking my head.
How matter-of-fact, this email is. It asks me to please attend a meeting in person, due to unspecified bureaucratic requirements, and concludes with an invitation to the office Christmas party, and a wish to have happy holidays!
A Christmas party! In the middle of the single biggest global violation of human rights in decades!
You can tell this email was written by a man. You can always tell. Only they could sound so calm and collected about all of this. Only they would somehow find it fitting to throw in a mention of the corporate Christmas party in a situation like this. As if any uncollared woman would ever risk attending something like that. But you can trust men to act like nothing’s changed, and everything’s under control.
Because they’re rational, the payload supplies, of course. They have a solution for everything. They don’t lose control to their hormones and their hysterical emotions, not like silly little girls… not like you…
I dig my nails so deep in my palms that I’m basically stabbing myself. It works. It’s a small thing, but associating pain with the payload’s programming is one of the few tips that actually seem to work keeping it at bay. It’s still a struggle, every day, and that’s at home, without the sensory bombardment of the outside world… but it’s better than nothing.
At last, I find the strength to get away from my computer, and start my daily routine… Except it isn’t daily anymore, hasn’t been since the event. With a gulp, I realise that things are different now. It’s not just simple as picking a professional attire I like, and sticking with it. Not anymore.
I go for the most gender-neutral clothing I can find, conservative dark pants and flats, a shirt and jacket. And then, I wrap a thick scarf around my neck for good measure. Every woman has known the ogling of men at some point or other in her life, but the event truly has given us all a whole new creepy experience—the way the eyes of a few men in every crowd will linger on your neck, noticing the absence of a collar… imagining how well one would fit you, how good you’d look like on your knees…
I rally myself, rejecting the mental image. I muster what courage I can, and leave the safety of my home, stepping out, into the open.
The first thing that hits me, alongside the cold wind, is Christmas music coming out of a nearby store.
War is over, if you want it…
Not for us, it isn’t, I think to myself with a shake of my head. Women’s war has just begun, and peace looks farther than it ever has in my life.
Then, it occurs to me that I truly am outside. The entire world is a danger-space where any man, at any time, might try his hand at overwhelming my independence—and likely win. I’m fair game. I’m not safe.
In a frantic second, dozens of guides and resources for women in the post-payload world surface back to my mind. I scan the street, and immediately find what I’m looking for—a group of women, headed for the same subway station I use to go to work.
It’s safer to travel in groups. It reduces the odds that a man will initiate a social interaction that might or might not involve a hostile takeover.
Fortunately for me, most men seem quite cooperative. I mean, it makes sense in a way, of course, it’s just… emotionally, it’s still a surprise and a relief. They give us a wide berth when noticing us. When we get down to the subway, the mindless mingling of the pre-payload world is largely forgotten. Us women group to one side of the platform, seeking to occupy a carriage in its entirety.
We look like we’re under siege, but it works. While the men are more scattered than we are, they do generally converge towards the far end of the platform. A few assholes linger on our side, of course, shooting us looks that are supposed to be casual and nonchalant, but are nothing but.
I wrap my scarf even harder around my neck, sticking my hands inside the pockets of my coat.
At last, the train arrives, and my carriage does indeed have a near-total female occupancy… but not total. That’s unavoidable of course. Some of the men stand to give up their seat, doing their best to look embarassed and inconspicuous. But again, a few stay arrogantly seated, more or less openly ogling and leering.
I can feel eyes on me, wondering what’s underneath my scarf. A collar? A bare neck? In a way, either prospect is probably enough to stir something in their pants, which makes me shiver. I’m not allowed to just exist. To them, I’m either owned property, or unclaimed property. And that’s all I’ll ever be.
The payload tries to convince me that’s hot. Worse, that it’s proper. That millions of years of evolution have sculpted every inch of my body to be alluring to a man, and frankly, the intellect attached to it is just an accessory.
I close my eyes, despairing. This better be the last time I get called in until the whole thing is resolved. I’m not sure I could bear another trip like this. I feel…
Well, I suppose it makes sense, given the metaphors. And yet somehow, the verbalisation of my emotions catches even me by surprise.
I feel like a soldier, marching to war.
* * *
When I step across the threshold of the company office building, I feel like I’m entering the lion’s den. My grim mood is in sharp contrast with the chirpy voice greeting me at the entrance.
“Welcome back, ma’am!” Shannon, the receptionist, says. I turn to face her, blinking in mild confusion at the jarring mirth in her tone. She smiles radiantly at me, her red hair tied back into a ponytail, further emphasising her neck, and, and…
Just seeing the collar firmly clinched around her neck makes me weak in the knees. I almost lose my footing, leaning against her receptionist desk for balance. “H-hi Shannon,” I say at last, embarassed at the heavy, almost… panting quality of my breathing. “You, uh… You ok?”
“Super!” She says, flashing me an enormous smile. Like she hasn’t lost her freedom to a man. Like she isn’t wearing his collar like a good little bitch, a loyal servant of the new order, a woman defeated and fallen, claimed and reduced against her will, moulded and reshaped, taken…
If I continue this line of thought, I won’t make it past the lobby. Nails dig into my palms. Flashes of pain bring me back to the world as it truly is—ugly, drab, and hostile to my gender. With a frustrated groan, I assess my surroundings.
I look around at the open floor space—Shannon shares the ground floor with the secretarial pool. I note with detachment that the formerly mixed-gender pool in question now looks overwhelmingly staffed by women. I look back to Shannon, who’s still smiling, like a perfectly radiant vision of feminine compliance.
I can’t help but think of all the times a man has told a woman to just smile more—because it makes us look prettier. I can’t help but think of the ambitious, driven person she was; forced into a receptionist role by circumstances, she very much didn’t want her career to end there.
Now… she looks like a poster girl for the new order.
“Shannon, if I may,” I say, hesitating as I throw a meaningful glance towards her collar. “Who…?”
“Ohh,” she says, tittering, shielding her mouth with her hand, affecting modesty. It’s impossible to miss the subtle rubbing of her thighs as she does it, the way she angles herself, revealing just an inch more of her nyloned thigh. She notices my gaze, and smiles. “Mister Sharpe himself! Can you believe how lucky I am? You jealous?”
I gulp, a sense of dread knotting my stomach. “Lucky” is not exactly the word I’d use. Sharpe is the biggest misogynist in the company, and maybe most importantly, he’s… well, a bitter rival of mine. My nemesis. He’s technically my subordinate—he lost out to me in the latest round of promotions, and has never forgiven me for it. But professional propriety has forced him to go along with it.
Of course, that was before. Now, men don’t answer to us; not anymore. I can’t imagine what horror being owned by him must be like, no matter how many brainwashed smiles Shannon throws my way.
I shake my head. “I’ll go up, I have a meeting.”
“Of course!” Shannon says, giggling. “We’ll be seeing lots of each other soon, anyway. I’m about to have sooo much company down here!”
I stop dead in my tracks, and almost ask what she means, but I’m on the edge of panic as is, and I don’t want to be in this building any longer than I have to. Not one moment longer.
I’ll get this meeting done with, and then flee home—and hopefully not leave again until it is safe to do so. Until this whole nightmare is undone.
I ride the elevator to the 16th floor, and enter the conference room.
And I instantly do a double take.
Every seat at the large, oaken conference table is occupied. By men. Why all men? Where are the other women executives? And then, as my eyes scan the length and width of the table, an even worse realisation washes over me.
There’s no seat for me.
I’m the sole woman in the room, forced to stand, confronted by an army of men in power suits, staring me down. It is an intimidating, awe-inspiring, terrifying display, and the payload gets to work trying to disassemble my mind, to convince that these men are sitting in judgement of me, even if most are technically my subordinates.
That this sense of impending judgement is how I should feel every time a man contemplates me. That the anxiety to not measure up should stir me to become a better, meeker, more feminine and obedient version of myself. That I deserve to have a man’s shoe firmly planted on my neck, literally brought to heel as he finally ends my independence and domesticates me…
Pain brings me back to Earth. I can’t let them see my weakness. I can’t begin to swoon in place, not here, not now. No matter how slick my sex is getting. Every male executive in the company has gathered here, and the sheer impact of maleness is too much for my female brain to process without unravelling…
In a slap of clarity, I realise that’s not true, that they’re not actually sitting in judgement of me. Most of the men here don’t look haughty and superior—they scrupulously avoid my gaze, their cheeks coloured by what might be embarassment, or even shame. Even my boss, CEO Frank Wolfe, seems bizarrely focused on a stack of paper in front of him.
Pretty much the only smiles in the room come from two executives. One is Lance Fowler, a confident ladder-climber ten years my junior, and a recently minted junior exec. He looks standard in a dystopian way: the average ambitious, ruthless young white collar predator, come off an assembly line of business-oriented jocks just like him. He’s lean, clean-shaven, and looks completely heartless.
He’s not a mysoginist, or a professional ogler, like some of his colleagues. I genuinely feel he’s just very… self absorbed. And ambitious, of course. That above all.
He gives me a small, polite smile. I can see that there’s nothing in that smile; it doesn’t reach his eyes. And you know what? In this world, that suits me just fine. Give me a man’s indifference any day. Make me bloody invisible to them.
The other smile, of course, comes from my nemesis. Sharpe is heavy-set, going bald and portly, his breath reeking of cigar smoke. He’s a much more outspoken kind of mysoginist, and is now looking at me with a… hungry expression. His eyes linger on my neck, and I’m glad I haven’t taken my scarf off.
At last, CEO Wolfe clears his throat. Still unable to meet my gaze, he starts reciting a droll speech, like he’s gone over the words a thousand times in his head.
“I’m sorry, Celeste,” he says. “As you know, women have no legal personality now…”
It takes me a heartbeat to understand where this is going.
But when I do, I experience a moment of jarring dissociation, like I’m outside my own body. Everyone said I had a non-trivial chance of succeeding Wolfe as CEO some day. And now… now his words flow freely in my ears, as I see all my hard work being destroyed. The sleepless nights studying, the corporate politics, the failed relationships because I always put work first.
All just to get here. To this moment.
“Can’t have someone who could potentially get collared access critical files… financial information… you understand, right?”
I swoon in place, feeling more and more like I’m about to faint.
“… Return to your old position as soon as the law changes… my hands are tied… a matter of liability… selected for you the highest role I could think of that didn’t expose us to any legal risks…”
I don’t catch half of what Wolfe is saying, the panic attack rising within me too loud, too blinding, drowning out most of his speech. Even so, I find myself nodding, stupefied, unable to form coherent words.
“… Demoted to head secretary…”
A jolt of electricity goes through me at that, and I hate how my cunt pulses when he says that singular, cursed word. The payload immediately latches upon it, cramming it into my thoughts, letting it poison every element of my self-perception.
The nail-digging doesn’t help. Not this time, and it’s because of that singular word. It’s the most offensive, outrageous, devastating, soul-crushingly hot word I’ve ever heard in my life.
As my vision begins to swim, and I find myself bending over and dropping to the floor in shock, all I see is the faces of Lance and Sharpe, superior and otherworldly, triumphant and ultimately male, as they look down at me.