Bodies bumped together in the crowded club — men and women, women and women, men and men — all wearing variations on black. Shiny, fuzzy, leather, lace, the black blended together to form a shadowy pit. The mostly white skin within it was uncovered more than socially acceptable. But this was a different kind of society.
I perched on the edge of a stool, my own combination of black and silver more of a costume than a statement. Slow, steady bass pounded thick around me, calling me to join the sweaty oblivion on the floor. The thought of rubbing up against a stranger both excited and terrified me. At the moment, the terror was winning.
“Hey,” a voice dripped into my ear. I spun around, my heart pounding twice as fast as the music. “First time? I haven’t seen you before.”
The man attached to the voice seemed more out of place than me. His white button up shirt glowed beneath the black light, as did his perfectly even chick-let teeth. He was at least two leagues above me.
“Uh, yeah. You?” Stupid. Stupid. He had just said he hadn’t seen me before, meaning he was probably a regular.
“Steve.” He stuck out a hand, ignoring my awkwardness.
“Lex.” I took his hand, hoping he didn’t notice my sweaty palm.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
I glanced down the bar. The bartender spent most of his time at the other end where the crowd was thick and thirsty. I had been perched on my stool for nearly ten minutes without so much as a nod.
“You can try.”
“Or we can skip the drink and go back to my place,” he suggested, biting back a wolfish grin.
I threw a half-hearted scowl at him, playing the role of the put-out woman. “I’m waiting for a friend.”
He laughed, the warmth of his smile melting my attempt at indignation. He held up his hands in playful surrender. “If looks could kill. Just the drink, then.”
“Gin and tonic.”
I hadn’t noticed how close he had edged until the warmth of his body left my side and a wave of cool tingles raced down my exposed arm.
He looked good, smelled divine. There was no way he was interested in the mousy girl hiding in a corner. He had probably just been trying to make me feel good.
I caught sight of him as he weaved through the crowd, the only clean cut guy in a room full of a Gothic ode to debauchery. He made his way to the opposite corner and waved down the bartender. The bartender passed over one drink, then a second. He was really coming back.
I smoothed my mini skirt over my fishnet stockings and sat up straighter, sucking in the small, pasty roll of fat oozing out between my crop top and the skirt. I lost sight of him, and then he was in front of me, holding a shimmering blue drink in each hand. I reached for one, but he whisked it away.
“Ah ah ah, not so fast,” he teased. I rewarded his teasing with a pout and he put a glass in my hand.
“It’s my first Wednesday.” He leaned against the bar, closing the distance between us so we could talk. “I usually come here on the weekends when it’s not… like this.”
Of course. Leave it to me to find the one normal guy in a crowd of freaks. Except he was probably the least normal of all of them. The least respectful. The most dangerous. In a room full of men dressed like wolves, he looked like a sheep. That’s what I thought the next day after I unwound myself from the toilet, picked myself off the grimy tile floor, and tried to piece together anything beyond that first drink.
My friend had come. The guy — what was his name? — was nowhere to be seen. He had been on me like gak all night — slimy but somewhat satisfying — then he was just gone, taking my memory with him.
I had a flash of padding down the damp San Francisco streets, my six inch heels dangling from loose fingers. The cool air hit my bare ass. I never found that skirt.
“Did we drink a lot?” I asked my friend the next evening at work.
“We?” She snorted. “You were plastered when we got there.”
But I hadn’t. The drinks had both been the same color, unmistakably gin and tonic. I had reached for one, and he had given me the other. A strange salty flavor had flooded my mouth, and I had been too polite to mention the drink tasted off. I had been grateful. Said thank you.
It took me half a year to return to that club, and even then I only went because it was my friend’s birthday. She had rented out one of the private balconies where we could look down on the stomping and arm waving below us.
I watched the dance floor from the railing, vigilantly scanning the tangle of goths below me for a white dress shirt. Behind me, two men threaded ropes through anchors in the ceiling, preparing to string up the birthday girl. They were masters of their art, Jessica had paid top price for their intricate knotting techniques, but I couldn’t tear myself from my guard post to watch.
“Looking for someone?” The voice behind me was low, slightly hoarse, and distinctly female. It belonged to a tall black woman. She towered over me, even without heels, and exuded calm strength, like a lioness that could pounce at any moment. Her bare bicep rippled as she ran a hand along the railing, and she nearly purred as she draped herself over it, her maroon jumpsuit slinking into position around her wide hips.
I leaned next to her, not taking my eyes off her face. She peered into the mass below, keeping her eyes carefully pointed forward, giving me space.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” I said,
“No, we haven’t, but I’ve heard about you.”
My mouth fell open, and I tried to imagine what this elegant, strong woman could have heard about me.
“Are you a friend of Jessica’s?”
She straightened and faced me squarely, studying me with fiery, topaz eyes. One side of her mouth twisted up into something halfway between a grimace and a grin, and she chewed her bottom lip, puckering her face.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
Something in her tone made me stumble back. She couldn’t know what had happened to me. I glanced to my friends, but they were caught up in the show, Jessica had a complete harness tied around her bare chest and one of the men was working on her thighs.
“I’m not drinking tonight.”
“No, of course you’re not. Not here. Not after what happened.” She watched me carefully, as if waiting for some reaction.
“Who are you?” I demanded in a low hiss.
She shrugged, dissipating the tension of the moment.
“Let’s go sit over there.” She pointed to a small booth in a dim corner.
I glanced at the crowd. They had pulled closer in around Jessica, tied into a full harness, as the two men hoisted her into the air.
“You’ll be perfectly safe. Still in eyesight. No drinks.”
“I have a proposition for you,” she said before my butt even settled against the pleather sofa. She took the chair across from me, forcing me to lean in to hear her.
“Who are you?” I asked again, less demanding this time.
She smiled a full smile and crossed one leg easily over the other. “You can call me Athena.”
“Goddess of war.” The name suited her regal strength.
“Of strategy,” she corrected me. “And I want to talk to you about the Medusa Project.”
A ripple of excitement rushed through me. Maybe it was her confidence and poise, or perhaps the way she nearly hissed on the “s” in medusa, drawing the word out seductively, but something told me to pay close attention to this Athena.
“What’s the Medusa Project?”
“Insurance?” The anticipation of the moment faltered. She was a salesman? This was all just some pitch?
“A type of insurance. For women. To ensure their safety. To make men think twice before they do what was done to you.”
I suddenly wished I had accepted her offer of a drink. I needed something solid to hold. Something liquid to stare into.
“Nothing happened to me.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Nothing?”
“Not compared to what other women have been through. It was no big deal. I don’t know who told you about it, but maybe you misunderstood — it was just a drugged drink. He didn’t touch me.”
“And you think that would have been the case if your friend hadn’t shown up?”
I shrugged, kept my eyes fixed on the chipped wooden tabletop, N + P carved into it. Meaningless to me, but for someone else it was probably a big deal. Strange how things can be insignificant to one person and life changing for another.
“What kind of safety?”
She moved beside me in the booth in one swift, cat-like motion. One arm snaked around behind me, the other hand stopped my fidgeting. Her closeness both frightened and comforted me, and I wasn’t sure whether to scoot away, deeper into the protective shell of sullenness I’d cultivated, or lean into her, admitting how vulnerable remembering that night made me feel. I choose neither action — stayed completely still, her cool hand over both of mine.
“ The Medusa is a device that will make no man want to touch you without your enthusiastic consent.”
“Like something I’d wear?”
She tapped me twice on the side of my head, her finger falling heavy on my skull. “Things you wear can be taken off too easily.”
“You mean an implant.”
“A neural interface in your brain would measure your stress levels. When you show a certain type of stress — specific to assault — a module in your arm would send a low current through your skin. You’d feel nothing, but anyone touching you would be… disabled.”
I jerked away from her, further into the corner. “You’re insane.”
She let me go, shifting her intense attention back to the crowd. Some of them must have been her friends, too. They knew the crazy tech she was dabbling in and told her I’d be interested. Obviously my friends didn’t know me very well. Except, no longer hovering over me, Athena didn’t seem quite so fanatical, and her idea seemed almost sane.
“Am I? You know the statistic for rape ten years ago was around one-in-five women. One-in-fucking-five. We thought that was too high then. Unacceptable. Something had to be done. And something was done. That stupid law. Ten years in prison if you publicly claim someone raped you and can’t prove it. No one can prove it, so women shut up. Reporting went down. Problem solved, right? You know the estimated statistic now?”
“They took away our voice. We need a way to protect ourselves.”
We locked eyes. The intensity and confidence was gone from her face, replaced with a dull plea.
“You’re talking about turning me into a modern day Medusa, Athena.” I spat out her moniker with contempt. “Apparently you don’t know your mythology very well. Athena punished Medusa. Poseidon raped her, and Athena punished her for it. It wasn’t some feminist empowerment. It wasn’t insurance. It was punishment.”
Athena’s playful excitement returned, giving me the impression she’d had this conversation before — several times. “It’s told that way because men write history. But think about it. Athena ensured no one would touch Medusa again. Yes, she took away her beauty, and men claimed that was punishment. Because who wouldn’t want the constant attention of men and gods? Maybe a woman getting over a traumatic rape wouldn’t, though. Athena’s solution wasn’t perfect, but she did the best she could, stood up against gods more powerful than her the only way she could imagine. That’s what we’re doing, too.”
“Doing?” My jaw dropped. “You mean it’s already in use?”
She turned over her hand to show me the inside of her wrist. Inked in black was a small Medusa head, two snakes stretching out to encompass her wrist like a bracelet.
“You won’t believe the feeling of safety and power it will give you.”
I shook my head sharply. “No. Not me. It sounds too much like revenge, not insurance. That’s just… it’s not me.”
“Okay. You’ll let me know when you’re ready. We’re here for you.”
I wondered who exactly “we” were. I had never seen Athena before, was sure that wasn’t her real name, and had no idea who she could be working with. I waited for the Medusa Project to hit the news, for a series of arrests to be made. But all that changed was a slow increase in the popularity of Medusa tattoos around me.
First they showed up on my friends. Black tattoos on still angry red skin. Jessica’s hip. Natalie’s shoulder. Even my yoga teacher’s lower back. They had no signs of implants. Maybe it was just a myth, a bedtime story to make women feel safe again. Deep down, I hoped it wasn’t.
Athena didn’t show up for awhile, but Steve did. A year later, in the home of a friend, led in on the arm of a girl whose name I couldn’t remember. She stood next to him, her hand possessive on his bicep as she introduced him around, and a surge of protectiveness welled in me.
The party was in high gear when they arrived, people rolling on their substance of choice. She settled Steve on a couch across the dim room and left to get him a drink. He studied the quiet conversations, the roaming hands, the sloppy, hungry kisses. I studied him, the way his eyes roamed freely, without shame. Our gazes locked, and he winked at me.
My heart competed with the bass stressing the stereo system, hard, low and skittering. My brain latched onto a high-pitched squeal in the music that carried me out of my suddenly cold body. He didn’t seem to recognize me, which somehow made everything worse, as if he would pick me out of a crowd as his target every time our paths crossed.
I wriggled in my seat, broke our gaze. But he didn’t look away. My breath came fast, my mouth dry.
In a dark corner, a girl moaned with pleasure, and his eyes snapped away from my face, searching for the owner of the sound. I dove for the brightness of the kitchen.
Jessica and the girl who brought Steve were talking in low tones, the girl’s face flushed with barely contained enthusiasm. No doubt she had been talking about her gorgeous date.
“Hey Lex, we just dropped, wanna join?” Jessica jiggled a small plastic bag of green pressed pills.
“Not tonight.” I faced the girl, unable to remember her name. “How do you know Steve?”
I meant for the question to come out casually, but it tumbled awkwardly from my mouth and the girl eyed me suspiciously.
“He’s in my stats class, why?”
Why indeed? I couldn’t tell her what had happened to me. I had no proof, and that could count as a public accusation if it got around. Ten years, and she probably wouldn’t believe me anyway. “Just be careful with him.”
She wasn’t. The drugs kicked in and she was in his lap, grinding against him, his hands all over her. She looked into it, like she was having a good time. I couldn’t help imagining what would have happened if she hadn’t been.
Steve had his in to my community, and I faded out. Every event he showed up at I ended up warning women away from him, knowing I was putting myself at risk. I didn’t even need to say why. Someone would remember my story about the club, they would put two and two together. Word would get around that Steve had drugged me, and I had no proof. It was easier to not show up where he might, safer to be alone.
Jessica said other girls started leaving the group, too, and she couldn’t figure out why. I could. They “dated” Steve for awhile and then just stopped coming to parties. He never stopped coming though.
“Come back,” she pleaded. “I miss hanging out with you. It’s all just stupid guys now.”
“I will,” I agreed. “But do you know a woman named Athena?”
Her hand flew to her hip, her face grew serious, and she nodded.
The implant didn’t hurt. It took about an hour for Athena to drill into my skull and place the metal prongs into my brain. A few pricks of anesthesia on the arm and she slid in a small device, barely a bump visible beneath the small red incision.
“I’m glad you decided to join us,” she said.
“You were right. We’ve got to do something. We need protection.”
Athena was bent over my ankle, etching a Medusa head onto my skin. The needle bit through, playing on my ankle bone, and I winced. She stopped and patted my tense foot. “We do.”
A week later, the cops knocked on my door. One man, one woman, dressed in sharp black uniforms, holding a piece of paper.
“Alexa Danes?” the man confirmed when I opened the door. “We have some questions to ask you about your relationship with Steven Smith.”
My strength drained from me, and I almost crumpled to the floor in front of them. It had happened.
“Apparently you’ve told some of your friends that Steven Smith drugged your drink at a nightclub about a year ago, is this true?”
Both of their faces were hard, unmoving.
“I never said that.”
“Did he drug your drink?” the woman asked.
I shrugged, avoiding the question. “Someone may have.”
“And you think it was him?” she pressed. “You can tell us. We’re here to get to the truth, and we can protect you.”
“I never told anyone,” I insisted, my voice a weak snivel I didn’t recognize.
“But you did warn women to stay away from Steven?” the man asked.
I did. I hadn’t accused him. I hadn’t said why. But I had told them to stay away. I had tried to protect them.
The trial was a month later. We all knew the verdict before it started. There was never any verdict in favor of women. Guilty. Sexual slander. A parade of witnesses all admitting I had said Steve was dangerous, connecting him back to that time I had drank too much and thought I had been drugged. No one saying he drugged me. No one saying I had been drugged. No proof. Just woman after woman, man after man, saying how I had ruined Steve’s life. Women didn’t want to date him. Men stopped inviting him to parties. Was it because he went from woman to woman, burning every bridge he crossed? No. It had to be me.
Hours of sitting in front of him, letting him stare at me with twisted hatred until the verdict came. Ten years.
The judge didn’t even bother smacking his gavel down with a stroke of finality. He just let it fall, a little knock barely heard over the whispers in the room, the pats on Steve’s back now that his reputation was rescued.
The bailiff approached me, motioned for me to step forward.
I stayed still, looking at the sea of faces I once trusted enough to try and save. They seemed so far away, as if my voice wouldn’t carry to them if I shouted.
The bailiff moved to take my arm. Steve smiled at me, nodded as he made to leave the room. The fear that consumed me every time I saw him bubbled over into rage. It built in me like a fire, threatening to burn me down if I didn’t let it out.
“No!” I shouted the word with all the air in my lungs. It came out from my chest rather than my mouth — a roar of blinding light straight from my heart.
The room froze and the bailiff stumbled back. His arm fell. He crumpled next to me in a pile of arms and legs and uniform.
Silence chased away the whispers. All around the room, men fell. One or two women and all the men were on the ground, laying in grotesque positions.
I backed away from the bailiff. The judge was on the ground, as were the lawyers. No one noticed as I turned and fled.
Athena was on the steps of the courthouse, lounging against a column, surrounded by men’s bodies and chaos.
“What happened?” I gasped.
“You, Lex.” Athena pushed off from the column and took my arm. She waved a device that looked like a smartphone over the implant in my arm and calm washed through me. My heart stopped rushing, my head stopped aching. I hadn’t even known how on the edge of awareness I had been teetering until she settled me.
“No. This wasn’t me. This was your implant.”
“The implant helped. Boosted what you were feeling. Gave it an outlet so you would stop turning it in on yourself. But thousands of women have the implant, and they’ve never done this. A small shock. That’s what usually happens. But you… I’ve never imagined the shock jumping, communicating with other implants. It’s amazing.”
“It’s terrible, not amazing. Are they dead?”
She shrugged. “Not exactly. Disabled. But I don’t think they’ll be returning to their bodies anytime soon.”
“How far? How many?”
She looked at her device. “It looks like most of San Francisco. Everyone who didn’t have a Medusa implant.”
“Everyone?” I collapsed onto the stairs, a little too close to an older man in a suit. “But there were innocent men. Men I loved and trusted. They tried to protect us.”
“Did they? They didn’t do much if you felt fear that strong. They could have done more, made the world safe enough to not need Medusa.”
“There were women, too,” I said.
“There were women at your trial, absolving men for locking you away.”
“It’s wrong. It’s revenge.” The words were right, but the confidence had drained out of my voice.
“Maybe. But it’s what you wanted.”
I turned to object, but she was no longer there. Besides, she was right.