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Savage Women, by Melanie Meyers

Winner of Arena Magazine’s award for Best Short Story with a Political Edge, part of Sisters in Crime’s Scarlet Stiletto Awards 2014

savagewomen imageThe night sky is something to behold in the middle of nowhere. I’d never seen so many stars. While I was looking up, awestruck and humbled, Roxy urged me to follow. Cane toads skedaddled as her torch lit the way via a narrow bush track. The property, Roxy told me, had been a compound for a religious cult then an eco-tourist retreat before lying vacant for several years. Earlier in the century it had been part of a larger nature reserve where children went on school camps and corporations sent employees on team-building exercises.

We reached the main building and walked lengthways across a deep verandah, past frontage made almost entirely of heavy glass. At the end was a wooden door that led into the kitchen. We immediately took another door at a right angle to the first.

‘The common room, or “the library”, as we like to call it, is through here,’ Roxy said as we doubled back—zigzagging unassisted by lights through tables and chairs—through the space on the other side of the glass. She opened a third door, situated at the back end in the corner, to a small windowless room, and there was Freya Bremer, of all people, sitting, reading a book.

Freya Bremer?’

‘Charlie Evans. Long time, no see.’

‘When—’

‘Three days ago. Roxy brought me here, same as you.’

I looked at Roxy.

‘You two know each other then? Happens more than you’d think. So, anyway, this is where we meet, hang out, read, etc. There’s no digital entertainment, or anything übernet-receptive, naturally.’

Instead there was a whole wall of built-in shelves housing an impressive collection of antique paperbacks. I wondered if they’d been donated or inherited from someone’s estate. Tangible book collections, particularly of that size, were increasingly rare. A coffee machine of the sort that actually required you to press buttons and some mismatched lamps and lounges—circa 2020 vintage, by the look—were the other defining features of ‘the library’. It reminded of my grandparents’ lounge room.

I went savage two years and eight months ago. I erased my existence from the übernet—virtual suicide, as it’s called—as much as possible, anyway. No social hubs, no accounts or transactions, no email, no usernames or passwords—passé as they are—and especially nothing using thumbprint, retina or facial recognition, biometrics or e-DNA (Defined Natural Attributes) for ID. GPS is virtually unavoidable. Even handbags and running shoes are nano-tagged to never ‘go missing’ these days. The only way to survive as a savage in 2044 is with dedicated underground connections and a fondness for all things old hat.

‘Calliope back?’ Roxy asked Freya.

‘I haven’t seen her.’

‘Never mind, you can meet her tomorrow. She had two pick-ups tonight,’ Roxy directed to me. ‘It’s late, so come and I’ll show you to your cabin. You’re in with Freya so you two can catch up later.’ Torch in hand, Roxy led the way back through the dining area to the verandah. We took another dirt path that wended its way through semi-tropical foliage with intermittent steps up a breath-catching incline. The buildings at the top, I presumed, were perched to look over a secluded valley.

‘Here we go. Cabin’s empty, but we’ve got a few coming in tonight so claim your bed now.’ Roxy slid open the screen—no biometric locks here—and shone the torch in. ‘We try to keep the lights off as much as possible. If you do need the light at night, make sure the blinds are drawn.’ She stepped in after me and waited by the door.

I put my backpack on an empty bed and scanned the room, trying to make out which was Freya’s. It reminded me of senior school camp. Rustic. I shared a dorm with Freya then too.

‘Roxy, do … how well do you know Freya Bremer?’

‘Her records were in the same slew of documents recovered by Operation Deep Retrieval that found yours. She’s as vulnerable as you are.’

‘It’s just that I knew Freya and she was—after we left school, at least—dead set against, like viciously opposed—’

‘That doesn’t mean she didn’t get herself into trouble, though, does it?

‘I guess not.’

‘Come on, I’ll show you where the amenities are.’

The amenities where? I wanted to ask. We’d driven for almost four hours in darkness, me crouched on the backseat. I had no idea where we were. But I took comfort in the, admittedly faulty, logic that if I didn’t know where I was, then those wanting to arrest me wouldn’t know where I was either.

I woke with a violent headache. There was no one in the room, although it was bright enough despite the closed blinds to suggest I was left to sleep in. When Roxy urged me to go into hiding I had envisioned some sort of military training camp with enforced schedules, exercise routines, and strong doses of manual labour. After a gentle knock, Freya poked her head in.

‘I didn’t want to wake you.’

‘That’s okay. I’m awake. Is there somewhere I can get painkillers?’

‘I’ve got some. Headache?’

‘Of the jackhammer kind.’

‘Hold out your wrist.’ She used tweezers to place a tiny transparent patch—half a millimetre in diameter—on the skin over my veins.

‘How did you get genuine Biorestore?’

‘Friends. How do else do you get anything? A few of us are going to the creek for a swim. Come along if you’re feeling up to it later.’ Freya removed her T-shirt and shorts before rummaging through a drawer for swimwear.

I lay back on the pillow as she stripped off her underwear, wondering if I was protecting her modesty or mine. Sport days and dance concerts never fazed her. Locker rooms were her domain, places to revel in her female flesh, unabashed by generous servings of hips, breasts and thighs. For our OPC in Year 11, or ‘Obesity Prevention Check’, she took off all her clothes, despite the directive to keep our underwear on and use a hospital gown if we wanted. We all gossiped, saying it was an attention-seeking stunt designed to discomfit the male specialist or ‘fat doctor’, as we called him. I’ve wondered since if it was her way of protesting the demeaning and intrusive management of our bodies. Regardless, her inexplicable religious conversion at the end of senior year had not, evidently, curbed her exhibitionist tendencies.

‘Can you do this up for me?’ Bikini top unhinged, she sat on the edge of my bed. At least she hadn’t embraced spray-on swimwear—a late ’30s fashion development I despised. She held her hair up as I fastened the straps. She smelt vaguely of nutmeg and citrus. Tendrils of her red hair fell loose and goose bumps formed on the back of her neck. I imagined placing my lips there, but that’s as far as I let that thought trail go.

‘Tight enough?’

‘Perfect. Thanks. I’ll let the others know you’re resting.’

I got up after she left. I needed coffee; the only non-prescribed stimulant you could still get, and the only thing, despite the wonders of nanotechnology, that was going to shift my headache.

There were two women in the kitchen. Late arrivals like me, perhaps—although they must have gone to a different cabin—having breakfast. They introduced themselves as Flick and Gretchen. They looked to be in their mid-thirties and I wondered if they’d left children behind. I poured a tepid cup of coffee and went in search of Roxy. She was writing in an old-fashioned ledger in a small office behind the kitchen. Her handwriting was exceptionally neat for someone of our generation. We’d barely learnt to form letters when the need, and means, to write by hand were officially removed from the curriculum. There have always been rogue schools and teachers who covertly teach handwriting, however, defiant about its cognitive and developmental importance.

‘Feeling better? Freya said you had a headache. Rough sleep?’

‘Fitful. I guess I’m more on edge than I thought. Coffee’s helping, though.’ I held the ‘I’m not an incubator to be regulated’ mug aloft.

‘You’ve got reason to be.’

Roxy informed me that Calliope, her fellow operative, hadn’t yet returned, and the two girls she was supposed to pick up had been apprehended at the Maglev terminal. She didn’t tell me how she knew that, only that their underground contact in Sydney didn’t even get to give the girls their eMag passes. A small gift of time at best, according to Roxy, as fake eMags would be considered evidence of underground involvement. The second problem was Veritum. A judge could order anyone arrested on suspicion of a crime to take it before a police interview. ‘We coached them to stay cognisant of the drug’s effects and how to counter them, but teaching superior mental elasticity is still a relatively early art,’ Roxy added.

‘Is this … does this happen often?’

‘Client intercepts? No, never. That’s what’s so worrying. Someone’s onto us.’

Like me, the two girls were kept in the dark as to where they were going, a preventative measure in the eventuality of succumbing to Veritum.

‘What will happen to them?’

‘No bail, and probably two years before their cases even go to court. Beyond that? Who knows?’ Roxy answered with a heavy shrug. She urged me to ‘go and relax’. Sleep. Read a book. Go for a walk. She assured me we were safe. For the time being, anyway.

I asked her about jobs and rosters. She directed me to a sheet of paper—not an easy commodity to come by—in the common room on which one was to put their name down for at least one task per day. I found the list and wrote my name under Freya’s for ‘vegetable garden’ that afternoon. My own handwriting had improved considerably in the last two and a half years.

* * *

‘Here, take this.’ Freya frisbeed a wide-brim hat at me. It was a scorching day. Temps in the low 40s it felt, not unusual for late October. We headed down to the greenhouse: a geodesic dome rising out of the bush about 800 metres away. It looked like a giant golf ball—a popular design in the ’20s—and it sat atop a cylindrical base made out of hemp bricks. Inside, a viewing platform, with horizontally stepped planter boxes hanging from the railing, wound its way to the centre like a continuous piece of orange peel. I asked Freya if she’d been up there.

‘Not likely. I hate heights.’

Extra sheets of glass lay over the top of some of the vegetable beds, allowing condensation to form underneath. The aquaponic and passive solar technology had to be at least twenty years old. Nevertheless it worked. The smell of fresh herbs—basil, chives, coriander, mint and parsley, from what I could see by the entrance—and organic fruits and vegetables was intoxicating.

‘So, here’s a list. You do the rows along this half and I’ll do the other side.’

‘How much should I pick?’

‘Enough for sixteen.’ Freya took one of the trolleys fitted with an organifoam tub parked by the door. I followed suit.

First on the list were tomatoes, which were also planted in the first row—all varieties, all red ripe and plump. I called over to ask if Freya knew which sort I should pick.

‘Whatever. It’s for a salad, so maybe the egg ones … hang on.’ She jogged down the row, picked one and took a bite. ‘Yeah, these are good. Definitely the eggs. You’re supposed to collect whatever looks ripest.’

I watched her walk back to the eggplants, eating the tomato and sucking the juice off her hand. She bent down to cup an eggplant and ran her fingers over its smooth purple skin before tugging it off the stem. There were things I needed to ask her. Problem was we weren’t close in high school and I didn’t know how to rekindle an intimacy that never existed. We were friends in the sense that we moved in overlapping circles and we were always cordial with each other. Discounting our last encounter eight years ago.

‘I’ve got a confession to make,’ Freya said, turning her head to look at me, no doubt to gauge my reaction. ‘Do you remember our senior school camp when Oliver Peters asked you out?’

‘Of course,’ I replied, wary of where she was going with this.

‘I was insanely jealous. I had fatal crush on him. You know he was done for carbon-store fraud recently?’

‘No, I lost contact with Oliver after … when we broke up.’

‘You’re well rid of him from what I’ve heard. I thought you preferred girls anyway. I was sure you went out with him just to spite me.’

Spite her, no. It was more complicated than that—at least it felt that way at seventeen. ‘Was I that obvious?’

‘Not to everyone, no.’

She moved on to the next row. The opportunity had come and gone, but perhaps I didn’t have the words. I never did around her. Besides she couldn’t be trusted, despite what Roxy said, and despite the fact I was falling for her all over again.

We finished picking in silence, and took our laden tubs of fresh tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, capsicums, rocket, cucumbers and herbs to the kitchen. Marla, the cook, told us Roxy had just convened an urgent meeting in the library.

I recognised Marla’s face. I’d seen her before, I was sure of it, and if I wore any sort of smart device like a normal person, I’d be able to identify her in seconds. There was no time to work it out using good old, but inferior, memory though.

‘Good, you’re back,’ said Roxy, as Freya and I squeezed in and sat on the floor. It would have been unbearable without Aircool, even if the system was about thirty years old. ‘No point pulling punches; they’ve got Calliope.’ There was a quiver in her voice. She was gripping her ponytail and staring at her shoes. The usually unflappable Roxy was rattled. No one knew what to say. That we were all compromised was obvious, but seeing Roxy’s distress—as much she fought to contain it—was like watching someone drown in front of you while a bushfire came from the other direction. Freya got up and put her arms around her.

Up until that moment, prosecution and imprisonment with a ‘corrective employment assignation’—indentured labour, effectively—for a ‘crime’ I committed eight years ago still seemed remote. Since retrospective prosecution of abortion laws passed three years ago, I’d lived with fear like it was background static: a constant low-level buzz, unconscious of its amplification until it was roaring in my ears, its base notes throbbing through my body. The faces of the women crammed in the library, a hall of mirrors, told me I wasn’t the only one with a thudding heart and a quarry in my stomach.

‘What do we do?’ It was Gretchen who asked what we were all thinking.

Freya looked at Roxy before speaking, something nonverbal passing between them. ‘Go back to your cabins and pack your bags. Be prepared to leave. Otherwise everything stays the same, including dinner at six.’

There was discussion about barricading ourselves into one of the unoccupied dorms. Someone suggested chaining ourselves to the bunks, or perhaps trees around the property, the way they used to in the olden days. We didn’t have chains, and we definitely weren’t armed, so attempting any kind of defence would be token at best. Common sense said fleeing into the bush was the best option. We were all savages, so there’d be no thanking technology, only our wits, if we survived.

We filed out of the room to go to our respective huts. Freya stayed with Roxy. Charged with anger, I sprinted most of the way without pausing for breath. The same white-hot rage had gripped me years before when it became clear the regime was hell bent on controlling women, putting them in their place and keeping them out of professions other than caring or teaching because unemployment was over thirty per cent. It was one way to ensure men got what few well-paying jobs there were. Like too many women, instead of maintaining the rage and fighting back, I’d been cowed into survival mode, telling myself that becoming a savage and untangling from the überweb was protest enough.

Parched and dripping with sweat, I gulped handfuls of water from the small washbasin and splashed some over my face and neck. I hadn’t unpacked, so putting my toothbrush away was about the extent of my packing. I’d only brought a bag containing clothes, a second pair of shoes, toiletries, and a couple of personal items, including a 100-year-old ladies’ chain watch that had been passed down from my great-great grandmother. The inscription indicated it was a gift from her WAAAF girlfriends during World War II. It would have been grand, too, if it still worked. Another inconvenience of being a savage was finding reliable devices to tell the time that aren’t connected to the bloody überweb.

I got the watch out, thinking time-telling would be handy if we did end up out bush. It was a long shot, but I twiddled with the dials, aware that anything more than a soft touch could break it. So keen was I not to damage it, it fell through my fingers and slid across the floor. As I bent to pick it up a flash of reflected light caught my eye from under Freya’s bed. I got down on hands and knees. As a savage you became alert to surreptitious light rays and pulses. If you accidently walk through a random bIoD.Check-pulse you’re screwed. A beam of afternoon sunlight from beneath the blind was hitting something with a refractive surface. I moved closer, reached under Freya’s bed, and retrieved a shiny three-cubic-centimetre block.

I knew what it was, at least I’d heard about them—the latest in gimmicky uni-person devices. It functioned as a cube, or it could be pulled apart. The squares worked independently to multiapplicate, or they could be joined together electromagnetically to create screens of two, four or six squares depending on user preference. A savage would never own one. It felt strange even holding it. If it was Freya’s—and its location suggested so—then she was no savage, and she was not here because the authorities were after her for having an abortion.

I had to tell Roxy. It made sense. If Freya knew where Calliope was going to pick those girls up from, and if she knew those girls would be coming on a Maglev train, then she could have tipped off someone at both ends. I put the cU-pad in my pocket and left the cabin, half expecting to see Freya making her way up, but she was nowhere to be seen. I ran back, trying not to go arse over tit.

I thudded across the verandah before realising a more subtle approach might be good. The glass doors were self-tinting to adjust to different light conditions, and I had to get up close to see inside. The dining room was empty and the door to the common room was closed. I took the kitchen door—Marla wasn’t there—then did the zigzag through the tables. I knocked first, who knows why, but there was no answer. The door was unlocked. Nobody was in the library.

Next I went to the office behind the kitchen. That’s where I found Marla. I placed two fingers on her throat. She was still alive, just, but someone had attempted to knock her out with something heavy and blunt to the side of the head. The room was a sauna; I couldn’t leave her in there. It had Aircool, similar to the library, but it didn’t seem to be working. I found a couple of natural-fibre tea towels in the kitchen, and used a knife to tear them into strips I could wrap around Marla’s head to try to stop the bleeding. Dragging her feet first wasn’t an option. I attempted to hoist her up by putting my arms under her shoulders and gripping her around the torso, trying to be careful with her head, but she was too heavy. I sat back on my haunches, drenched in sweat, to recover my breath.

‘Roxy! Roxy!?’ It was Gretchen, calling through the kitchen.

‘She’s not here. I need help!’

Gretchen and Flick agreed that the library was the best place to put Marla. Gretchen, a paramedic in another life, and Flick, a former triage nurse, had her up and settled on the three-seater lounge before you could say, ‘amateurs out of the way, please’.

‘Okay, so we put the body in the library. What now?’ Gretchen asked. Medic humour, I assumed.

‘I’m going to stay here with Marla. I need a first aid kit.’ Flick was already improving on my handiwork with the tea towels.

‘There should be one in the kitchen, if not I’ll go back to our cabin and grab mine,’ replied Gretchen. ‘You go look for Roxy, Charlie.’

And Freya, I wanted to add. Gretchen and Flick had come down to tell Roxy a helidrone was circling overhead. They’d seen four women leave their cabin and head towards the creek and into the scrub. Gretchen said she hoped at least one of them knew how to catch and skin a wallaby. The rest seemed to be lying low in their cabins.

Roxy was probably in hers, which I assumed was closest to HQ—still about fifty metres away. I could hear the helidrone—you’d think they’d send something quieter—but couldn’t see it from under the roof of the verandah. Given what I suspected about Freya, there was a good chance Roxy was in more immediate danger than what the helidrone posed. I judged the path to have enough tree coverage to make it there undetected. I still wished I hadn’t worn a red singlet. A stupid thought: colour made no difference to heat sensors. My legs had multiple scratches. A few more wouldn’t make any difference. I sprinted, calling out on approach to the cabin and hoping to unnerve Freya if she was in there with Roxy. The same bravado was used to slide open the door without knocking. The cabin, identical in layout to ours, was empty. I did a cursory check under the beds, but no one was playing hide and seek with me.

Other possibilities were the car park, the shower block and the greenhouse. I chose the greenhouse because if they went to the car park they’d be long gone, and the shower block seemed unlikely. The bush was also denser in that direction.

The sun was hanging low, but even through the foliage it was still in a mood to blind and punish. I tripped over a tree root and gouged my knee. My palms also copped a harsh grazing. With a lot of swearing and ‘ow’ing, I limp-ran the rest of the way to the greenhouse.

There was no one in there and it occurred to me that the greenhouse was a good place to hide the cU-pad from Freya, as well as removing the possibility of it being detected on me. There were any number of plant beds or pots I could bury it in. I walked around the perimeter weighing up the pros and cons of placing it under the watch of the eggplants or amongst the low-growing pumpkins and their tangle of vines and leaves.

Freya was scared of heights. But I wasn’t. The gate that guarded the ladder leading up to the spiral platform wasn’t locked, but the screeching of its rusted hinges registered its reluctance to open. I looked around, certain I’d woken the dead.

Walk, limp or run, there was no way of moving up the walkway without it sounding like hail on a tin roof. With a sense of urgency I jogged to the top, also aware that the planter boxes hanging over the rails along the way were empty. The last one proved no different. It would have to do. I put the cU-pad in the top-most box, at the centre point of the dome. I looked down. It was at least a twenty-metre drop with a sheet of glass to break your fall three metres from ground zero. Blood was oozing down my shin from my gouged knee, but the pain had at least backed off. I headed down, conscious of my fuzzy silhouette moving around the sphere from the outside.

I gave the gate at the bottom a two-handed push. I didn’t hear the main door open or my name being called over the creaking, which could have been a banshee’s wail.

‘Charlie! Charlie, I know you’re in here.’

I froze. A deer in headlights, as my grandmother used to say.

‘Where’s the cU-pad, Charlie? Did you put it up there? I could see you running down.’

I moved silently to my left with the intention of remaining hidden from her. When I was sure she’d gone in the other direction I bolted towards the door behind a row of citrus trees. It didn’t take her long to double back. She beat me to the exit and blocked the door. When I attempted to turn around, she grabbed me around the waist, and wrestled me to the dirt floor.

‘Stop, Charlie. Listen to me. I need that cU-pad. Now.’

She flipped me over and straddled me, then pinned me across the torso with her knee. I was no match for her and not just because she was several inches taller and heavier. She had both my wrists between her hands.

I fought anyway, trying to wrest free of her grip. ‘Why? So you can tip them off about Roxy? Where is she, Freya? What have you done to her?’

‘She’s gone. To find Calliope. I tried to talk her out of it. She’s going right where they want her.’

Bullshit. She wouldn’t be that stupid. And you’d only know that if you were the one setting her up.’

‘Listen. To. Me. I don’t work for them. I work for us, Charlie. Women who are being hunted down for the crime of controlling their own bodies.’

‘I don’t believe you. You were protesting outside the clinic the day of my abortion. You spat at me and called me a baby killer. You’re full of shit, Freya.’

‘Charlie, I’ve been fighting for us, women, since high school. When you were all giving me shit about being opinionated and loud and calling myself a “so last century” feminist.’

‘You could have fooled me. What about the “baby murderers are going to hell” rhetoric?’

‘I did fool you, Charlie, and everyone else. That’s the point. I’ve been undercover for the last ten years. Until now, when they uncovered evidence I had an abortion five years ago.’

I didn’t say anything.

‘I need you, please, to go back up there and get the cU-pad. I might be able to get someone to intervene before Roxy gets caught.’

She tried holding my gaze, but I turned my face away. On the surface of it her story was believable, but the holes were still cavernous enough to require serious bridgework.

‘What about Marla? How do you explain her being bludgeoned? She’s not dead, by the way.’

Freya’s face was unreadable. Did that look mean if Marla were to regain consciousness she’d be able to identify the person who tried to kill her?

‘That … that wasn’t meant to happen. Fuck you, Charlie. I need that cU-pad.’ With that, Freya let go of me and stood up, determined to get the thing herself.

I didn’t attempt to stop her. The banshee wail was released again. From my view from the ground, I could see her gripping the ladder. She looked up, then down at her feet before putting a foot on the bottom rung. I sensed more than saw her take a deep breath.

My knee was throbbing. I took a closer look at the damage and wiped some of the dirt and blood away with my hand. Blood on my hands. Marla. I knew where I’d seen her before. She was with Freya that day. On the footpath. Holding a placard. Accusing me of having blood on my hands.

I still didn’t trust Freya. There were too many unanswered questions. But I would swallow broken glass for Roxy. I got up and hobbled over to the gate.

‘Freya, I’ll do it.’

She was only halfway up the ladder. She turned her head to affirm my intent. She gave a small nod and climbed down. There was no thanks, but relief was written on her face.

‘Can you hurry?’

I did hurry. I was up and back in under a minute. Fast enough for us to flee into the bush as a SWAT team descended on the hideaway. After encrypting a message to her contact Freya smashed the cU-pad with a rock and threw it into the creek.

If anyone knew how to survive as a savage I suspected it was Freya Bremer.

Melanie Myers is artistic director of nonfiction writers’ festival Reality Bites. She is completing a Doctorate of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of the Sunshine Coast, where she lectures in Creative Writing.