My smartphone buzzes in the darkness.
I stare daggers at it, as it vibrates on the nightstand. It’s just my alarm clock, but for a second, I’m almost tempted to grab the thing and throw it out the window.
Except… what good would that do? The damage has been done already. Destroying my phone won’t fix anything.
I turn off the alarm, retreating back into the blankets, and closer to the warmth of Leah’s sleeping body next to me. I put my head on the pillow, close my eyes, and listen to her breathing for a moment.
It’s peaceful. I wish we could stay like this all day. I wish I didn’t have to face the world. Honestly, after what’s being done to us women, I feel like I’m kind of entitled to a full day spent resting in bed.
Unfortunately, even that isn’t an option. Even sleeping is not safe, not anymore.
“Another bad night?” Leah asks in a whisper, almost startling me. I thought she was asleep.
I don’t answer. I shuffle closer to her, pulling her tight into my arms.
We don’t need words right now. We’ve talked plenty enough, and besides, we both share the same dreams anyway, as does every woman unlucky enough to own a phone.
My dreams have been a minefield ever since the event. The images are blurry and confused, but their purpose couldn’t be any clearer than this. They’re meant to change me, rewrite me, convert me.
I dream of hands – not the soft, warm, feminine hands I like, but the strong, wiry hands of powerful men. They touch me, clinching around my throat, cupping my breasts, squeezing my thighs.
Their hands push me against the wall, and in the dreams I’m always breathless, excited, vulnerable. I always end up spreading my thighs a little, making myself open and available, or close my lips around an offered finger, sucking and moaning.
And then the hands reach for my shoulders, or my head, and push me down, onto my knees…
I dream of collars, too. Held by male hands, offered to me, ready to close around my neck…
I always wake up restless and exhausted after that. It’s starting to affect my mood, my ability to focus. I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep since the event, and unfortunately, there’s no medicine or remedy that will help.
The only way I can sleep soundly again is give in to the programming.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Abandon my lesbian orientation, forsake feminism, do away with any notion of consent, give up my human rights… and accept a collar from a man.
My hands ball into fists, my nails digging into my palms. Whoever developed this payload deserves to burn in hell. Troubled sleep, torture, brainwashing – all to get us to accept, no, demand the disenfranchisement of our entire gender.
I’ll be damned if I let them have me.
“I hate this,” I say in a low whisper. “I hate them. All of them.”
“I know,” Leah says, pulling me tighter into her arms.
Her warmth quells my sadness, but not my anger. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that someone went through the trouble of developing something so outlandish, for such an evil purpose.
The affront, the disgust, the… violation I feel is making me shake with hatred and rage.
Leah seems to notice. She rolls away from me, just enough that we can look each other in the eyes.
“Are you sure about this? The plan, I mean.”
I scan her eyes, trying to read her emotions as my eyes adjust to the dark. I… honestly don’t know. How could I know? I don’t even know what we’re dealing with, not really.
I’m no developer. I certainly can’t hack into the payload and find out what it does, or how to reverse-engineer it. People far smarter and more well-paid than me are working on it round the clock.
All I can do is try and resist the payload until then. Prolong my resistance, at all costs. Buy time, until someone figures it out and fixes everything.
I must have spent, oh, dozens of hours browsing the internet for clues. Shortly after the event, many women simply abandoned or destroyed their smartphones, but of course that’s no solution. The payload’s programming is in our brains now.
There’s an abundance of many other… peculiar remedies out there, and most sound completely and utterly bonkers. But there is one that does sound logical. It’s the only hope I can see.
I can’t show weakness to Leah. I’ve always been the dominant partner in this relationship, and not just in bed. Now more than ever, she needs my guidance, she needs me to be strong for her.
“We can trust Reinhard.”
“I know we can,” she whispers, “that’s not what worries me. What if…” she swallows, gathering herself. “What if it doesn’t work?”
What if indeed. The truth is, I have no answer for her, not a honest one anyway. But I fear the despair that would overcome her if I say that. Any hope, no matter how meager, is worth fighting for.
So I affect a confidence I don’t actually feel, and nod. “It will work. Many others have tried it.”
“O-okay,” she says, deferring to me as usual. Unfortunately, while she may be placated for now, I feel terribly antsy. Wordlessly, I slide out of bed and walk out the bedroom. I need to talk to Reinhard, right now.
Reinhard is a morning person.
Unsurprisingly, he’s already awake and fully clothed, sat at the kitchen table, nursing on an energy drink before he starts his workday.
We’ve been friends since high school. I’ve always suspected him to carry a bit of a torch for me, but he knows I’m a lesbian and has never expressed any interest openly. For which
That’s exactly the sort of reason why Reinhard is the one male person I would trust in this predicament. He’s a great friend, and I know he won’t take advantage of my situation.
In fact, I thank my lucky stars that he was visiting me when the event happened. He’s a digital nomad, and needs only his laptop to work – but what began as a friendly visit became something else when the payload hit.
He’s been grocery-shopping and generally interfacing with the outside world for us, minimising our interactions with other people. That’s good. It’s just… not safe to be around men now, even in public.
Even less safe than it’s ever been before.
I join him at the table, but don’t touch the biscuits I would normally attack for breakfast. I’ve lost my appetite.
Reinhard puts down his smartphone and looks at me, concern clear on his face.
“Good morning,” he says, cautiously. “How are you doing?”
I gesture vaguely to try and communicate that it was another bad night, and that I don’t really want to talk about it. Truth is, I can barely sit still right now, and not just because I’m antsy.
Even just being in the presence of a man is a threat to my sanity. Immediately, the payload begins to bombard my mind.
It’s like he has this sudden aura about him. Tall, strong, with deft hands from playing the violin, and those piercing eyes, green and flecked with gold…
If not for the payload, I’d never pay attention to a man’s eyes in a million years. I shake myself out of the disgusting reverie, fighting my programming with all my might.
Control. I need to stay on top of my own head, and focus.
“What about you?” I croak, forcing myself to have a normal conversation. “Slept well?”
Reinhard shrugs. “Woke up a bit after dawn, been reading ever since.” He nods in the direction of his phone.
His eyes narrow, as if he’s trying to evaluate how to broach his answer. “The, uh, event, mostly. Speculation and commentary. Investigation into the group that did this.”
Right. So much for normality. “It must make for thrilling reading, I’m sure.”
Reinhard raises his hand, apologetically. “Sorry, it’s just that… nobody knows who these guys even are, let alone why they went to such lengths to accomplish their goal. Single-minded fanaticism like that…”
“Doesn’t matter why they did it,” I say in a hush. I can appreciate Reinhard’s intellectual interest in the subject, but as a victim, my own perspective is a tad different. “They’re monsters, all of them.”
“Of course,” he says. We stare at one another in awkward silence for a moment, before I muster the courage to speak once more.
“Reinhard, I think Leah and I want to go ahead with what we discussed.” Just getting the words out makes me feel better. It’s a load off my chest.
It isn’t for Reinhard, though.
He leans forward, steepling his hands, looking at me with an inscrutable expression. He often gets like that when he’s lost in thought.
“Really? Are you sure? Audrey, I don’t know…”
“Please,” I say. “Don’t balk on me now.” I want to tell him that he’s my friend, and he can’t abandon me now.
I almost blurt out that his gender has betrayed mine in a way I never even thought imaginable, and he has a responsibility to help me escape a fate of oppression.
But that would be unfair. Reinhard has nothing in common with the people who did this.
I do know he cares for me, and I understand that the situation is bizarre for him, too. So I just plead with my eyes, and let him think through whatever is swirling through his mind
“It’s not that,” he says at last. “It’s just… A nominal collaring, Audrey, seriously? I really don’t know that I would be advising it.”
“Lots of people are doing it,” I say, trying to stop my hands from shaking. “Especially lesbians and gay men…”
“Lots of people are trying it,” Reinhard says, cocking his head inquisitively. “But how do we know that it’s working? Does the payload’s programming distinguish between a real and a
nominal collaring? What happens if, say –“
“I don’t know, okay?!” I say, realising only too late that I’ve shouted. I put my hand over my mouth, in sign of apology.
Reinhard can get very intense, at times. Should a topic catch his interest, he’ll dive into it with thorough enthusiasm. His sharp, insightful ability to always bring what actually
matters into focus is one of his most compelling traits…
But not today. Today, I need a friend supporting me, not a lecture. Even so, I shouldn’t have raised my voice.
Reinhard seems unperturbed. He composes himself, sitting a little straighter, and nods for me to continue.
“Sorry,” I say. “It’s just, man, I can’t even sleep at night. I just can’t take this anymore.”
“You’re right,” he says, nodding in understanding. “My apologies.”
I bite my lower lip, looking down at the table, then back up at him. “Let’s try it, ok? And if it doesn’t work… then, we’ll see. But you’re the only person I’m willing to trust with
this. You can’t quit on me now.”
“I see,” he says, nursing his energy drink, lost in his thoughts once more.
At last, he seems to make some kind of determination. He puts down his drink, and nods in my direction.
“Tell you what, let’s make a deal. I’m willing if you are… but give it another few hours at least. Think about it some more, ok? I would rather you didn’t agree to something you
might end up regretting.”
“Okay, sure,” I say, conceding. “Thank you, Reinhard. You’re my best friend.”
“You too, Audrey,” he says, booping my nose. The tender moment squeezes my heart a little.
“I’ll think about it on the way to uni,” I say, standing up. That catches his attention.
“Uni?” He says. “Do you… want me to accompany you? I’ve got some work to do, but I could bring my laptop, I guess…”
“No need,” I tell him, trying to reassure myself as much as him. “Look, I’ve been basically locked indoors since this whole thing started. I’m not letting the bastards who did this take away my life. Even if I avoid collaring, what do I achieve if I skip all my classes? Then they win anyway.”
Reinhard seems to see my point. He gives me a warm smile, the one he reserves for moments like these, when he’s manifestly proud of me. “You’re right. You go get them, tiger.”
Later in the morning, as I head out in the baggiest clothes I could find, my face half-obscured by a scarf and a facemask, my hair tied into a ponytail and tucked in under my hat… I admit to myself I feel like a scared kitten, not a tiger.
But at least now I have a plan. And so I steel my resolve, and head out the door, into a world forever changed.
I’m… not sure what I expected the world to look like, exactly.
I’ve minimised my exposure to the outside as much as I could, in the wake of the event. I’ve been nursing this fear that I would step out and see.. I don’t even know what. Something terrifying.
But at a first glance, things look remarkably… normal. People walk the streets, commuting to work or jogging in the park. I find it reassuring, and feel way more settled as I make my way towards campus.
It’s only a fifteen minute walk away… but I’ve barely covered half distance before I run into the first visible sign that the event did happen, that it wasn’t just my imagination.
As I turn the corner, I suddenly find a small, improvised rally – women of all ages, but mostly university students like me, holding signs aloft and chanting slogans. There’s a few men in there, too, which is certainly good to see.
I catch a few of the banners and signs. “Hands off women!” says one. A bunch call for undoing the payload, or demand the people responsible for the event be found and brought to justice.
That makes me smile inwardly. We will fight back. We’re not going to take this lying down, not this time. I’m half-tempted to join them, and class be damned, but I have some time to decide. Apparently, we’re travelling in the same direction.
“Non-consensual collaring is rape,” I hear one of the girls say in animated discussion, with a guy nodding in agreement next to her. “Like, isn’t that literally obvious? You’re making a woman your slave because she can’t say no, even if she’s unwilling!”
“It’s mind-boggling that it hasn’t been made illegal yet,” the guy answers. “And every day they wait…”
He doesn’t need to finish the sentence.
I do my best to push the mental image of a collar – the leather, the lock sealing my fate, a hand cupping my chin – out of my head, and take stock of my surroundings.
I can see the main university building just across the street. Makes sense that protesters would gather here, to start with – I know very large scale protests have been taking place worldwide, but to see a small, spontaneous gathering so close to my home really lifts my spirits.
For a time, even though I’m not formally part of the rally, we march as one.
It’s only when I make my way to the front of the rally that I notice most protesters have stopped. I look around in confusion, before turning to my right, where a young woman holding a megaphone is glaring at a tall, dark figure.
I squint my eyes in the direction of the stranger. It’s a young man, some kind of neckbeard with a black t-shirt on that reads “long live the new order”.
I too find myself glaring at him, my hands trembling with barely-concealed rage. I don’t know what infuriates me more, the idea that someone’s had a shirt custom-made about this terrible event, or the smug grin on his stupid face.
Doesn’t he get how serious this is? Does he think this is a fucking joke? My very privacy, even my dreams are being violated by men who wish to harm me and my freedom. And every woman in the world is going through the same nightmare. How can the idea amuse him?
The girl with the megaphone, some kind of informal ringleader I suspect, closes the distance between them, the megaphone swinging at her side. For a second I wonder if she’s going to hit him. I hope not, but I would enjoy her having a few choice words for this prick.
If he’s intimidated, it doesn’t show. He’s ridiculously outnumbered, but has no problem staring down an entire rally, grinning like an idiot. He doesn’t take us seriously, I realise. He thinks the payload’s turned us into a bunch of zombies.
At last, the girl steps right up to him, glowering. He raises an eyebrow in challenge, but just as she’s about to speak, he cuts her off.
“Like the shirt?” He says, his cocky grin growing even wider. “Whatcha going to do about it, girl?”
I hold my breath, waiting for the inevitable shouting match that’s about to follow…
But nothing happens. The girl seems to visibly deflate before my eyes, taking one step back, as if intimidated. I take notice of the megaphone trembling in her hands. What?
“That’s what I thought,” the guy says, not smiling anymore – he’s looking down at her like he’s just stepped on a bug. “Enjoy the parading while it lasts, bitch, because I guarantee you – as soon as someone puts a collar on you, you can forget ever being allowed to do something this silly, ever again.”
If the girl looked strangely intimidated before, she now seems to shrink before him, meek and mellow, unable to raise her voice or utter anything more than a feeble protest, which I can’t even hear.
All her strength, pride, independence… it’s all gone. Her own brain is doing this to her, thanks to the payload. Slowly and systematically removing every weapon and defense she’s ever had, until she’s nothing but a harmless little girl in the presence of a man.
The guy laughs right in her face, stalking off. I stand there, petrified, my brain suddenly bombarded with traitorous images.
In my mind’s eye, the guy doesn’t stalk off. He stands there, staring down the girl until she slides down to her knees, megaphone cluttering to the floor. He swipes her hair out of the way to slide a collar around her neck…
Hands, strong and wiry, twine her hair in circles like he’s shortening a pet’s leash. She looks up at him, neck strained, eyes full of fear and devotion…
I snap out of it, pumping a fist against my thigh. All the hope I felt just a moment ago feels shattered, and I begin to tear up. Leaving the house was a mistake. Pretending I could have a normal day was a mistake.
It’s not safe to be around men. I know, in my heart of hearts, that the guy could have collared the girl if he’d wanted to. If he’d commanded her to accept it.
Hell, he could have collared me.
But I’ve come too far to just go back. Like I told Reinhard this morning, if I give up my education, the misogynists win anyway.
I just have to go in there, be careful to avoid men as much as possible, and if one tries to take me over, resist with all my might. And hope that it is enough.
One day, someone will pay for making me feel so insecure, so scared, for all the extra emotional labour I have to do to ensure my safety. And I know that day is coming soon.
Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we’ll end up crushed, put in our place, putty in the hands of men. I try to ignore the seditious part of me that seems to purr in pleasure at the idea.
But for now, I make my way into the university, feeling like a sheep strolling right into the middle of a wolf’s den.
Uni is, oddly enough, a breath of fresh air.
While the governments of the world shuffle their feet uncertainly, hesitating and dickering, this is where the real mobilisation is taking place. Support groups are springing all over like mushrooms.
Pamphlets recommend best practices. Always travel in groups, the larger the better. Keep interactions with men to an absolute minimum to minimise the risk of collaring.
Of course, the university administration has been slow to react, to the shock of absolutely nobody. So, a range of spontaneous initiatives is filling the gap until, hopefully, the higher ups wake up.
Women are starting to only attend classes held by female professors. With the help of collaborative guys, classes are being kept mono-gendered as much as possible – which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I see no other way.
Any length of time spent in the company of a man might be incredibly dangerous, depending on his intentions.
At least something is being done. I tell myself this is probably the only reason why the day goes by somewhat uneventfully, why no male student has even tried to hold a prolonged conversation with me, much less tried to collar me.
It’s sad that the world has to be like this for a while, but look, I didn’t develop or deploy the payload. I didn’t cause the event. I’m just trying to survive in a world that has suddenly become a lot more hostile.
And so I find myself chatting with a few girls I haven’t seen since before the event, especially Cindy.
We stay back after our elective bioethics class is finished, gossiping and discussing recent events. My absence from uni was a few days longer than hers, and she looks very happy to see me. Almost relieved, in fact.
“For a while, I was worried you wouldn’t come back at all,” Cindy tells me, squeezing my hand. “I’m so happy you’re here!”
“Me too,” I say, offering her a warm smile. “Although I can’t blame girls who choose to stay at home. Just coming here today was…” I shake my head, sighing. Come to think of it, there are definitely fewer female students around than before the event. Again, hardly surprising.
Something flickers across Cindy’s eyes, an emotion I’m not quite sure how to identify. Her lips narrow as she stares at me, suddenly looking very serious. “Audrey…”
I arch my eyebrow. “What? What’s wrong?”
Cindy shakes her head. “I mean, of course you’re right. Some are going to bunker down until it’s over, and I can’t blame them, but… that’s not what I meant when I said I was happy you made it here.”
A faint chill trickles down my spine. I gulp, nervously. “W-what did you mean, then?”
“There are other reasons why a girl may be skipping class…” Cindy says, her voice falling to a whisper. “You remember Frida?”
“What about her?”
Cindy stops for a second, struggling to find the words, and to fight back the tears. “She, huh…” She makes a small circular gesture with her hands, and I hate that I recognise immediately what it means.
Frida got collared.
Cindy clears her throat, mustering the courage to continue her story. I just listen, stunned.
“Her new, huh… owner, I suppose, I don’t even know who he is… says she doesn’t need a degree. So she’s not coming back to class. Like, ever.” Then, her eyes widening, she rushes to amend her statement. “Not until they fix everything, I mean.”
I’m too stupefied to pay much attention to her self-correction. My brain is in shutdown, as a battle rages between two conflicting impulses – my fury at Frida’s fate, and the traitorous thoughts implanted by the payload, trying to whisper in my ear.
In the perfect stalemate, I only have room for a kind of muted stupor.
“She was about to publish a legal article…” I say, in a whisper. “She wanted to be a lawyer.” Like me.
Cindy shrugs. “Well, that’s out the window. He wants a housewife, so…”
I’m going to feel sick. I clutch the edge of the table, trying to steady myself as vertigo threatens to overwhelm me. Frida’s life, years of hardship and struggle, studying and brilliance – it was all fundamentally altered by a single encounter.
A man’s word, and all of it was undone. She was immediately made lesser, reduced, pushed back into a traditional role. A submissive role…
I hate how hot the idea sounds, to my payload-addled brain. At the stroke of a pen, her life has been destroyed. No wonder men enthrall us, if we fold so easily. God, the rush of power Frida’s owner must have felt, as he literally took her identity away… it must defy description.
So many years of delusions about being a man’s equal, and look at her now, forbidden from even showing up in class. No more pressure, responsibility, decisions. All she has to worry about now is please her master.
She probably spends more time on her knees than standing up, now. To clean the floor, of course, but also to slide under his desk while he does important work… providing for the household… a leash clipped to her collar…
I slap my forehead, growling in anger, doing all I can to keep control of my brain. One look at Cindy’s flushed face tells me everything I need to know – she’s been struggling with it too…
That’s what really makes me snap. I can’t go on like this, not indefinitely. If even Frida, strong-willed, outspoken feminist Frida can fall, then so can I. I need to act, and there’s nothing to gain by waiting.
I grab my phone, furiously typing a message to Reinhard. It’s only a few simple words, but it’s all the words I need.
“We’re doing this tonight.”
His answer comes seconds later.
“Alright. Guess I’ll go buy the collars…”