Judith Deane briefly suspended her stowing of
empty water tins under the deck of the ketch to stare towards the red glow that
illuminated the northern horizon, dimming the stars. From the dinghy bumping alongside, her friend
and fellow voyager Jill Gordon called up to her. “This is the last load of empties, Judith!
The Woodruffes will be coming off next trip.”
“That looks like something big on fire to the
north!” Judith commented. “Must be the offshore oil wells. Those Purifier people are really serious
about returning to a pre-industrial economy!”
Jill peered across the deck in the same
direction as Judith. “This sort of thing
seems to be breaking out all over the place.
Just the possibility of a world-wide catastrophe seems to have started
crazy wars everywhere. This is the time
to really use those Peace weapons. They
say there are bugs now that can eat every kind of military material. You know!” she said vaguely. “Viruses or
nano-technology, or whatever they are.”
“Just as well we’re getting away from this
place before the real trouble starts,” Judith said cheerfully. “We should be home by the time it strikes…”
“At least by then they’ll have other things
to think about.” Jill said with more confidence. “No one will be fighting wars in the middle
of a natural disaster.”
The two women returned to work silently,
their thoughts privately occupied with the uncertain future, Judith passing the
empty tins handed up from the dinghy to her sister Gillian Arnold in the fore
hatch, whose children Alice and Tom were crouched to stow them in the narrow
space below. Ashore, John Arnold and the
two Woodruffes, Jessica and Richard, were stripping the island bird observatory
which had been their home for a year, of its last usable resources. They finished the last stow and sprawled on
the wooden deck, skimpily clad in the warm tropical night, grateful for the
light breeze. The women talked in low
voices of the political disruption on the mainland and the projected return
home, careful to remain cheerful in the hearing of the younger pair. The ketch rolled gently in the Indian Ocean
swell as the dinghy appeared for the last time out of the darkness.
“Come on people! Rouse yourselves!” John Arnold called briskly. “We want to be well away from the island
before dawn in case the fighting spreads.
The sooner we reach the mainland the sooner we fill up with water. We have a long voyage ahead and the less we
see of the land the better. The high
seas are the safest place, whatever happens!”
Scrambling to their feet they set about
hoisting in the dinghy, heaving up the anchor and setting sail, recognising the
truth of his words.
A little over two years later and not far to
the southward the sun was newly risen on a palm fringed shore. Just the lightest of breezes ruffled the calm
and empty expanse of the ocean, but a long, low swell broke gently in regular
flurries of dazzling white upon a long sandy beach. Only the piled, sun-bleached debris along the
high-water mark and the battered appearance of the fringing palms gave any sign
of wreck and tempest past.
Offshore, a single
fishing boat crept over the swells, its half dozen round-bladed oars dipping
irregularly, looking like a labouring beetle as it described a wide arc out to
At the edge of the
sea a grizzled old man in a white gown followed the progress of the boat,
shielding his eyes with one hand, his legs like black matchsticks below the
short hem of the gown, his black bullet head loosely wrapped in a white cloth.
The boat had turned parallel to the shore, dark figures crouching, paying out
nets over the stern. The old man stumped
along the water’s edge, keeping pace with the boat and examining its progress
at intervals. At last he came to a halt
and gave a long cry, cracked and wavering, answered by several voices from the
As if on cue, there
emerged through the fringe of coconut palms behind the beach, a double file of
khaki-clad women with long bare legs flashing in unison as they marched,
marking them as pale of skin. Their
hair, blonde, brown, brunette and auburn in colour, was European too, flowing
long and loose. They marched in
disciplined unison, heads up, bosoms out-thrust, pale arms swinging, the double
rank of bare legs exposed almost to the thigh by the shortness of the out-sized
khaki shirts which were their only visible garment.
Crisp orders rang out
from their escort, four stalwart black women, uniformed in crisply pressed
khaki and polished leather, each of whom was carrying a long bamboo cane tucked
under one arm. Keeping in step, the
double file swung to form a line above the beach, clear of the piles of storm
debris, halted obediently and faced front towards the sea. They stood to attention. The greenish-khaki shirts were several sizes
too large for their female frames, hanging loosely just long enough to cover
essentials, the slit sides of the shirt-tails exposing white thighs. The sleeves were rolled above slender feminine
elbows, and the open collars wide around delicate collarbones and slim
necks. Their long hair, evidently uncut
but well-tended, fell right down their backs restrained only by a leather band.
At the margin of the
sea below, the old man, having given a brief glance at their first coming, had
returned his attention to the boat which was now rolling in the swell as it
turned back towards the shore.
Erect before the
disciplined double rank of white women, one of their black guards barked
another command. In a ripple of movement
the whole formation relaxed their postures.
In perfect unison they reached forward arms crossed, and taking their
loose shirts under the arms with practiced fingers, whipped them up in one
fluid motion and over their heads. By
demonstration the shirts had been their only garment.
Stark naked, the
double line dipped in one graceful simultaneous motion, breasts bouncing and
bottoms swinging, folding the shirts with practiced economy of movements into a
neat square pile at their feet. They
straightened with a quick backward flip of cascading hair and a gradual
subsidence of bobbing breasts, to come to attention once more, chins uplifted
and hands by their sides. Their
out-thrust nipples prodded the air in all colours from pink to deep russet and
below their bellies between their thighs, luxuriant pubic bushes varying from
black to light gingery flourished untrimmed. The black drill mistress surveyed
the naked ranks with satisfaction and then a last command broke their ranks and
sent the women flooding naked, down the beach towards the sea.
The boat was well
inshore by now. A small boy was
balancing in the bows, his ragged gown tucked up to fling a line to the old man
who was wading into the surf to catch it.
He passed the end to the first of the women splashing out to meet him
and the rest of them tailed on behind her.
They waded deep, their naked figures, smooth and rounded, pale golden
skinned, hair floating loose, formed a startling contrast with the voluminous
white gown and black stick-like knotted limbs of the old fisherman. He paid little heed, however, yelling
furiously over his shoulder as he hauled on the rope.
The women hauled
valiantly, their naked bodies soon wet and gleaming with spray, breasts
swinging and bottoms bobbing. Some waded
deeper than the old man who was presently almost surrounded by his naked female
gang. The black women guards remained
aloof, standing back with their canes tucked under their arms. As if freed of
their restraint there was some chattering among their charges, though a squeal
or two and the sound of a wet slap brought the guards advancing to the very
edge of the swash. They hesitated there
as if reluctant to wet their gleaming boots, but the white girls bent in
earnest to the task without further urging, the old man waving his fist, half
jesting, half in earnest as he co-ordinated their heaves.
Slowly the net became
visible inshore as a long crescent of leaping silvery fish. The female team, all wet-skinned gleaming
curves, began to trudge alongshore in the shallows, towing the net behind them
and shepherded by the old man. The boat
rowed parallel to them a little off shore until the two ends were united where
the other had been secured to a stake in the sand. They began to haul in the bulging net until
its splashing silvery burden was spilling onto the sand. The fishing boat was now surging through the
surf towards the beach and the naked gang came flocking back, obedient to the
hen-wife gestures of their black supervisors.
They retreated up the beach to where they had left the neat row of
folded garments with a sudden last-minute rush to form their line again, this
time with hands on heads. Three of the
black women followed them, leaving the fourth busily engaged with the boat’s
crew sorting and dividing up the catch.
The reason for the
rush was made evident when their supervisors selected one of the white women
for further attention. The unfortunate choice was directed by a pointing cane
to step forward in front of the rest. A
sharp order from the wielder of the cane and the white woman meekly bent
forward to touch her toes, her blonde hair falling to obscure her face.
The fishermen had
straightened from their work to stare and grin as the sharp impacts of the cane
carried down to them. The other white women stood quite motionless. At a sharp order the one who had been caned
straightened, revealing a very tearful red face and then, clutching her bottom,
meekly re-joined the others.
Work resumed at fish
sorting, though from time to time a fisherman would straighten for a covert
stare at the row of naked women who, without resuming their clothing, now
squatted on the sand under the eye of their guards, quietly plaiting strips of
palm fronds into the semblance of shallow baskets. Among them, squatting naked with the rest,
eyes lowered and fingers busy, but conscious of the interest displayed by the
men, were Judith Deane, Gillian Arnold, Jessica Woodruffe and Jill Gordon.
Shortage of water had
forced upon the voyagers the unwelcome necessity of making a landfall on the
continental shore. Calling at one of the
ports was out of the question since Western craft were liable to be regarded as
spies or arms smugglers and none of them knew what murderous faction might have
come out on top in the local wars. Tom
Arnold had an intimate knowledge of that coast and was confident that he could
navigate them into one of the thinly inhabited swampy river deltas. They would
take on fresh water there, un-noticed by authority. Had they carried out that plan exactly and no
more, all would have been well. The backwaters were so peaceful, however, and
the few fishermen they met were so unthreatening that the girls were encouraged
to go ashore in a small hamlet to bargain for fresh fruit.
On the way back to
the dinghy, Jill was lagging behind with an awkward armful, when she was seized
by a man who had emerged from a roadside hut, scratching his chest and wearing
only a skimpy pair of boxer shorts. He
had shouted angrily at her in no language that she recognised and, getting no
response, grabbed her by the shirt.
Dragged towards the hut in the intimate clutches of a man whose hands
were taking liberties with her flesh and whose skimpy garment displayed the
signs of his sexual arousal, Jill resisted desperately, dropping the fruit in
the process. She yelled for help to her
friends who were then well ahead. The
man had a strong grip upon her shirt and the only way to free herself was to
wriggle out of it, slipping downwards and leaving it in his grasp. He staggered back, unbalanced, while Jill
scrabbled away in the dust with her breasts escaping from her skimpy bra. Other men were now tumbling from the hut
behind him in similar states of undress and Jill didn’t stop to argue.
The two other women,
having started back to help, saw her fleeing towards them half naked with her
finger-marked breasts bouncing, pursued by whooping men, and didn’t wait to
discover the exact circumstances either.
Jessica was alone on
deck watch with the yacht’s only weapon.
She used it wildly but impressively, firing in the general direction of
the pursuing mob who all dropped immediately into cover with yells of fury and
alarm. The men rushed up from below and
got the yacht under way as the three women tumbled into the dinghy and made it
almost skim the water to safety.
reached the sea without interference, but two days later, becalmed with the
coast just a blue smudge in the distance they were overhauled by an armed
patrol boat and arrested on suspicion of being arms smugglers. Taken into port despite their protests, the
details of their clash on the river came to light. The men they had the brush with turned out to
have been a patrol of militia supporting the latest revolutionary coup.
They had probably
been taking an illicit siesta when one of their number was attracted by the
sight of Jill passing the door. Unfortunately two of the soldiers had been
lightly wounded by Jessica’s wild firing and, to justify themselves, they had
reported having fought a pitched battle with armed intruders.
The trial of the
voyagers for illegal entry, arms smuggling and the wounding of two government
soldiers took place before a Revolutionary tribunal in a fly-blown coastal
town, half market, half fishing station.
The judges were local inhabitants chosen from the supporters of the
coup, ignorant and fanatical, the atmosphere one of hysteria and
xenophobia. Jill and Jessica were
sentenced to five years’ corrective labour, Judith and Gillian to two years
each. The men received heavier sentences
and were parted immediately from the women to be sent to a high security prison
in the interior. The two teenagers were
taken into the care of a State orphanage pending their deportation, while their
mother and the other three women were sent to an island penal settlement
“It will be better
for Europeans there,” a friendly local assured them. “The climate is easier on the island and only
women and juveniles are imprisoned there working on the experimental farm.”
The prison regime had
not been unusual at first, though strict enough to compel the stranded quartet
to submit wholly to the loss of their liberty and to acquire the more
appropriate habits of disciplined obedience to authority. Other white women prisoners were added to the
prisoners from the yacht. The first were
two from a group of stranded travellers who had tried to steal a boat from a
fishing co-operative and then several female members of various international,
charitable or media organisations, all accused of spying or helping dissidents
As their numbers rose
they formed a quite distinct group within the prison and kept apart from the
main body of black female prisoners.
They were housed within the solid stone bastions of an old Portuguese
fort set atop a rocky headland overlooking the shark infested waters of the
islands harbour. Though the thickness of
its walls and the constant breeze off the sea made it cooler than the hutted
prison camp on the landward side, it formed a prison within a prison. They were held singly in individual cells
except for exercise and work periods and this isolation deprived the white
women of any opportunity to develop mutual support to counter the dominance of
their guards. What they learned from the
succession of new arrivals was of increasing strife and chaos on the mainland
that made escape seem more dangerous than submission to prison discipline. Few of the wardresses spoke other than their
own local dialect and so the white prisoners were unhappily all the more dependent
upon the prison’s Chief Matron, Saida known as the Lioness, as being the only
one who was capable of understanding them.
The prisoners were
glad of these distant work details. Humiliating though the conditions might be,
it kept them for a while out of the reach of the dreaded Lioness.
She was a big black woman of a deep ebony
colour with a quite terrifying majesty of manner and fierce tawny eyes. Her great bush of black raffia-like hair and
thin arched nose hinted at Nilotic ancestry.
She wore the same khaki uniform as her wardresses but with a style that
suggested her severe outward composure concealed a streak of purely feminine
vanity. Its cut enhanced her magnificent
figure, her rump taut in the sheath of skirt, her thighs swelling powerfully
under the crisp khaki. Her bosom seeming
to defy gravity in the starched high-necked tunic. As she was a head taller
than any other woman in the prison, she made an imposing and overwhelming
Cross-legged on the
sand, fingers busy, Judith recalled the process of learning this skill in the
workroom in the early days. Rows of
silently industrious women skimpily clad in thin grey cotton shifts, their
flying fingers busy tucking and plaiting, all of them watching from under
submissively downcast eyelashes, surreptitiously studying the Lioness’s
unyielding black face as she dismisses her most recent victim and looks along
the ranks, averting their eyes in case she is seeking another. Crimson-faced, the hapless delinquent whose
cotton-clad seat has just sampled the cracking impact of the Chief Matron’s
heavy ruler, stumbles back to her place.
Not to sit, now too painful a position, but forced to kneel to her
Busily the others
bend their heads over their task as Saida rises and paces like a Lioness
indeed! She stalks among the prisoners,
inspecting the work, surely aware of the tension that follows her, the frisson
of fear that seizes whoever is by whenever she halts. There was not one of them by now who wouldn’t
falter desperate excuses, make abject apologies, express fervent desire to make
amends, rather than be the one to be singled out, marched to the front, while
the others titter like weak minded idiots in sheer relief at being spared.
A sudden cry now from
the wardress down on the beach alerted Judith and the prisoners all sprang up,
hands brushing automatically the round splotches of drying sand from plump
bottom cheeks. They filed down
obediently to where their taskmistress now presided over a heap of silver fish. One by one they queued to have their shallow
baskets heaped with the food. Suddenly
one of those still waiting, cried out and pointed, slim white arm raised. Noise and activity stilled as the people on
the beach and the men in the boat saw what she drew attention to.
A huge object, pale
blue in colour, hung silently in the sky like a balloon a few hundred metres
above the waves and seemingly a mile or two off-shore, as if it had just
materialised out of nowhere. It grew
rapidly larger and turned, resolving into an enormous torpedo shape.
revived as the shock became identification of the shape and behaviour. A giant airship, its size verified by the row
of cabin windows glittering in the sunlight on the long bulge beneath its
belly. It was turning slowly broadside
onto the shore. Along its vast side were
revealed a long line of black oriental style ideograms, an enigma to its
audience. Behind the bulge, four long
tubes projected like rockets, swivelling and snorting brief puffs of white
vapour as it manoeuvred with leisurely assurance to maintain its position. Figures and pale faces could be distinguished
in the long gondola. The occupants,
however, made no signals and seemed to be making a leisurely examination of the
scene on the beach through binoculars.
At last the wardresses
and the fishermen collected themselves and work resumed, now with a certain
degree of nervous haste. There was a
good deal of screaming and the cracking impact of canes as the uniformed black
women endeavoured to round up and re-order their charges, some of whom had
strayed up and down the beach in apparently aimless fashion during the
At length the squad
was marshalled and counted in case any lay concealed among the heaps of sea
wrack that lined the upper parts of the beach.
Lifting the dripping baskets of fish aloft onto their heads in African
fashion, they set off, not in quite the same order as they had arrived. They were quite naked now, arms raised to
steady their burdens, lifted breasts thrusting pert nipples. Several bobbing pairs of round bottom cheeks
now displayed the red imprint of the cane as they marched away through the
tattered half-wrecked palm trees. The
last of the white women, khaki-clad, carried in her basket the folded shirts of
her naked sisters. Immediately beyond
the palm-fringed beach, rocky cliffs rose steeply but in the direction they
were headed a footpath climbed in zig-zag fashion towards the cliff top.
Behind them the great
airship had lifted and turned away heading to follow the island coastline, leaving
behind them the fishing boat rowing slowly in its wake and scrawled along the
sand where the prisoners had been straying the trampled letters SOS HELP.
The procession of
basket toting women surmounted the cliffs and joined a well-defined road that
ran through cultivated fields towards the dark bulk of the old fortress on its
headland. The flat plateau sloped gently
down towards the harbour and, beneath the fortress walls were visible the
reconstructed buildings of the modern prison, freshly white-washed and showing
new thatch where tiles had been stripped off by the tsunami. The neat
regularity of the fields, fenced with earth banks amid which occasional
orchards and bio-fuel plantations, were just re-covering with fresh green
shoots, was a relic of the experimental farm.
Men and women were stooping at work in the fields, hardly bothering to
look up as the long file of white porteresses passed them by.
The stooping field
workers were, for the most part, occupants of these buildings no longer a prison
but adapted as a resettlement village.
Black women prisoners set free had found partners from among the mainly
male refugees from the mainland. There
being no attraction in returning, they had settled down contentedly under the
rule of the Governess, their saviour and heroine. Assisted by her loyal and admiring staff, she
had set about re-organising the island as an orderly queendom. The legacy of the experimental farm had been
a wide range of stored seed and, particularly, salt tolerant types originally
designed for the desert fringes, but useful in the aftermath of the sea wave.
Many of the survivors
were fishermen who had been far out in deep ocean waters when the wave
passed. The fishing was now particularly
good with the sea stirred up and nutrients washed from the shore. The men who had manned the boat that morning
had been from the settlement around the little boat harbour sheltered by the
The airship was
visible again, now lying motionless off the harbour, having rounded the island
cliffs. Where had it come from? Was there more just over the horizon? There were no more powered ships since the
oil had all turned to dirt. If these people could fly, where had they come
from? The file of laden women marched
steadily towards the elucidation of these mysteries.
Among the workers in
the fields the women roused most interest among a gang of boys working near the
roadside who all stopped work to watch.
With arms uplifted to the basket’s rim the women’s shirttails had
inevitably lifted to reveal a little more than before. The boys whistled and hooted, the women
affecting not to hear but quickening their pace instinctively. The boys were mere juveniles but, despite the
large influx of male refugees and the large number of women prisoners and
wardresses, there still remained an imbalance of females over males. Any virile male on the island might expect to
find women vying for his attention. It
had made even these younger boys from the juvenile side very cocky.
It had been through
one of these that Gillian had committed her first error.