“My name is Professor Christina Sanders and I want to express my gratitude to all of you for choosing this class on history,” I said softly and smiled at the seventeen students sitting spread out in the large auditorium. Most of them looked only mildly interested but a young man was shooting me a smile that I politely returned.
“This is modern history, and in today’s lesson we’ll focus on the Toxic War also known as World War III and reflect upon how the world has changed because of it.”
A girl in the back raised her hand, and feeling pleased about her interest, I pointed to her. “Yes?”
She sat up straighter and played nervously with her wristband. “Is it true that you’ll teach a whole class on the Nmen?”
I swallowed a smile, not surprised by her question. “Yes, it’s true. It’s a very popular class.”
“But is it also true that we have to be here physically or we’ll miss it?” she asked.
I leaned against the table behind me and kept my voice soft and friendly. “I know you must find it odd that I insist on doing lectures in this old-fashioned style instead of sticking to virtual reality or holograms like most professors. But I’m a historian and an archeologist – I like old school, and this is how I prefer to teach.”
The girl chewed on her lip but didn’t ask more questions, so I continued.
“If the mysticism surrounding the Nmen will help me draw my students to campus then so be it, and who knows? Maybe you’ll find that sitting in a classroom isn’t so bad.” I smiled. “People used to do it all the time to discuss ideas and learn from each other.” I moved around my table and picked up a book on Ancient Greece. Old-fashioned books were a rare sight and the students leaned forward to see better as I held it up. “Ever heard of Socrates?”
When several nodded their heads, I made my point. “He taught like this. In person – face to face.”
Another student raised her hand. “Will it affect our grades if we choose to watch the classes from home?”
I shrugged. “Only if you’re not here for the Nmen lecture, since it won’t be recorded.”
“And when is that lecture?” she asked.
Flashing a secretive smile, I walked back to stand in front of my desk. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. Which is why I would suggest you show up in person to all my classes.”
I ignored the discreet sighs from some of them. “Unfortunately, the class on the Nmen and how they came to have their own territory isn’t today. Today we’re focusing on the Toxic War.”
“But is it true that you’ve been to the Northlands in person and that you came out alive with pictures?” the girl asked eagerly.
I laughed and brushed back one of the unruly curls that had escaped my braid. “Surely you can tell that I’m alive and yes, there will be pictures. As for my being there, that’s just a rumor. No woman from this side of the border has entered the Northlands for centuries. Not since the peace treaty stopped the Nmen from kidnapping our women, that is.”
“Then how did you get the pictures? Isn’t it forbidden?” the brunette asked, and a few others nodded as to indicate they were wondering the same thing.
“It is true that distributing pictures of the Nmen is normally considered a crime, which is another reason you’ll have to be here physically to see the images. But I assure you that I’m not committing any crime by showing you pictures of the Nmen since it’s strictly for educational purposes and approved by the council.”
“But who took the pictures? And how did the photographer get out alive?” they wanted to know.
I kept my tone calm even though this talk excited me. “As part of the peace treaty we help the Nmen with certain specialized tasks. Being only ten million people, they don’t have the same access to specialists, and we’ve assisted them on different occasions.”
Everyone nodded, since it was commonly known that the Northlands was a wild and primitive place and that the Nmen were the black sheep of the human race. No one expected them to be as technologically evolved or as enlightened as us. Teaching the class on the Nmen was one of my favorite things in the world because the students were soaking up my every word, and the element of mystery and adventure spoke to me. I should be getting back to today’s lecture but couldn’t help indulging myself a few moments longer.
“The pictures I’ll be showing you will include a portrait of our very own Michelle Knight standing next to the first president of the Northlands. That photo was taken just after they signed the peace treaty.” Always the teacher, I asked: “Raise your hand if you know who Michelle Knight was.”
Eleven hands went up in the air, but I nodded to a young woman whose smooth dark skin and frizzy black hair reminded me of my lovely roommate Kya.
“Michelle Knight was among the first hundred and one councilwomen to serve the Motherlands, and she was one of the three delegates who negotiated the peace treaty with the Nmen thirteen years after the Toxic War ended,” the youngster said matter-of-factly.
“It was lucky that they didn’t kidnap her,” she added. “Everyone knows that the Nmen kidnap and rape women.”
“They used to!” I said firmly. “And that’s why we made the peace treaty with them and why we secure our borders to the North.”
I held up a hand to the five students who had their hands raised. “No more questions about the Nmen. Today we’re going to focus on the Toxic War.”
The open faces and curious glances that had just been looking at me with their full attention, turned downwards. Not many people shared my passion for the past and most avoided talking about it. We were all raised to focus on the present and be optimistic about the future. Sadly, the past represented grief and regret, and the consensus was that there was no reason to dwell on it.
“You.” I pointed to a blonde girl on the first row. “Tell me what you know about the war.”
She squirmed in her seat and her eyes looked upward, making me suspect that she had an implant and was accessing the Wise-Share.
“The Toxic War broke out in 2057 after decades of political disturbance across the world. It was the breach of treaties and an escalation of cyberattacks on neighboring countries that made the UN fall apart and former allies attack each other.” She frowned as if reading in her mind’s eye.
“And then?” I asked to move her along.
“And then it became an endless spiral of retaliation and by the end of 2060 the world was almost completely destroyed.”
“True.” I nodded my head and pointed to the student to her left. “Can you tell me how the war affected the geography of the world?”
He nodded. “Yes, large areas became uninhabitable because of radiation and pollution from chemical weapons.”
“And can you name those areas?”
“Ehhm, it was the area formerly known as Africa, Amia, the eastern part of Russia, and Europe.”
“Not Amia… it was called Asia,” I corrected him.
“And what areas are still inhabitable?” I pointed to the young man who had smiled brightly at the beginning of the class.
“What was formerly known as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, North America, and the western part of Russia.”
“Thank you.” I pushed up from the desk and crossed my arms. “And of course one of the first things the council did was to eliminate the old-fashioned idea of countries, so we are now all simply residents of the Motherlands.”
I was losing their interest but kept pushing. “Why did the council get rid of country names?”
No one raised their hand so again I had to point to someone.
“I don’t know,” she said with an uninterested shrug.
“Because it was the mindset of ‘them and us’ that caused the wars to begin with.” I clapped my hands to get them to look at me. “Who wants to tell me what happened after the war ended in the fall of 2060?”
The young man with the bright smile raised his hand and waved it almost enthusiastically.
“The population was reduced from eight billion to only one point five billion – with women outnumbering men twenty-six to one. There was a general blame on male pride and aggression as being the trigger for the near destruction of the planet, and that’s why protective laws were made to make sure greedy and power-hungry men can never rule again.”
I nodded and pointed to a dark-haired young woman who looked older than the others and had her hand raised. “Yes?”
“Basically what happened was the men almost destroyed us all and we women tried to save what was left,” she stated matter-of-factly.
The smiling young man wasn’t smiling anymore. Instead he kept his head down, making me feel sorry for him.
“Yes, but let’s not forget that not all men were greedy and power-hungry before, and not all women were innocent.”
Muttering broke out among the females in the room, so I clarified. “All I’m saying is that the men who survived for the most part supported a transition into a new leadership focusing on rebuilding and nurturing the world.”
The mutter only increased, and I knew I was walking a fine line. The last thing I needed was to get reported for being a troublemaker, so I quickly carried on.
“In what ways have we changed our ways of living from before the war? What are the big five?” It was an easy question that every elementary school kid could answer and sure enough; every student raised a hand.
I pointed to another young man in the back. He was wearing a fashionable white jumpsuit with a multicolored vest.
“The big five are: No killing, no greed, no borders, no pollution, and equality for all.”
“Exactly. We no longer kill animals to feed on them and we don’t hoard to have more possessions than our neighbors, and as I mentioned before, we got rid of borders and the ‘them and us’ mentality.
Except the border to the Northlands, I thought.
It was, to use a phrase that would probably mean nothing to the students, the elephant in the room that no one spoke about. We had created a society built on equality and tolerance, yet we had a big wall to protect us from the brutal Nmen who refused to live under the rules of the Motherlands.
A sequence of small pinging sounds alerted me that my online students had questions. I ignored them, favoring the students in front of me, and chose a student on the third row. “You have a question?”
“Yes, but it’s not related to the war. It’s just something I’ve always been confused about.”
“Let’s hear it,” I encouraged her.
“I know people used to marry, but the more I read about it, the more puzzled I get. Would you please explain how that worked?”
Marriage wasn’t on my agenda for today, but it was another area that had always fascinated me so I took the bait and answered the question.
“There used to be a balance in numbers between men and women on earth, and from early on they formed families with one woman and one man coming together to procreate and raise children.”
“But how could there be a balance between men and women? Who controlled that an equal number of boys and girls were born?” the brunette asked.
I scratched my head. “Good question. Nature, I suppose.”
She waved her hand again but didn’t wait for me to give her permission to speak. “But I don’t understand how that worked,” she said. “Was every family forced to have an equal number of children to even things out? And what if they had two sons already – were they then forced to have two girls too?”
“No, I just meant that nature has a way of evening out the differences. For instance, we know that in some societies they preferred males and would kill their infant baby girls. In that part of the world there would be a lack of women of course, but because women tended to outlive the males around the world the numbers evened out eventually.
“Family unions were formed by one man and one woman, and depending on the culture it was based on either a practical arrangement or passionate love.”
Muttering broke out again and I knew it was the phrase “passionate love” that confused them.
“You have to understand that women and men were not as evolved as we are today,” I started. “It’s mind-boggling to think that the concept of marriage started from an old tradition of a woman’s being first her father's property and then handed over by her father to be her husband's property. There was a time when women didn’t have the right to vote or pursue a career, and in many cultures it was the custom for a woman to give up part of her identity and take on her husband’s name after marriage.”
Disturbed looks were exchanged.
“I can see that you’re upset about this, but then imagine being a woman living in the parts of Asia and Russia where bride stealing was used.”
“Bride stealing?” a male student in the last row asked while fiddling with his pretty long braid.
“Yes, men would kidnap women on the street and force them into marriage.”
“Was that legal?” the young man asked with his face scrunched in mortification.
“I’m not sure. It’s hard to think that it could have been, but nevertheless we have found solid evidence that it took place as a cultural practice.”
The brunette was tearing up and I held out my hand. “Don’t get me wrong. Not everyone was forced, of course. But even if you weren’t kidnapped or forced there was still a lot of pressure. We know from our research that in general, society placed a high value on the institution of marriage and it forced people, especially women, to feel worthless without it. Some cultures demanded that couples be married in order to have kids. And in some cultures, having children outside of marriage could get a woman shamed or even killed.”
Gasps were heard.
“We would like to think that bride stealing was isolated to a small part of the world, but from our studies we know that in large parts of the world women were forced into marriage as children.”
“But why?” a girl asked with wide eyes and a look of horror.
“Maybe the family needed money. Maybe it was for political reasons. We can’t know for sure, but what we do know is that it was once common among royalty. In the thirteenth century, the King of Portugal married a girl called Elizabeth who was only eleven at the time. In the sixteenth century, Henry the Fourth married off his teenage daughter, Princess Emilia, to a man more than thirty years older than her.”
“But why did the women go along with it?” the young man who had been smiling in the beginning asked.
“I don’t think they had much choice, or maybe they just didn’t know things could be different. Who knows?” I threw my hands up in the air. “We historians can only base our assumptions on the clues left behind and, as you know, much was lost during the war. I encourage you to visit the post-war museum to get a better understanding of the old world. When you do you’ll also see the impressive exhibition of extinct and nearly extinct animals. There’s a huge one called an elephant that looks really funny with a long nose.”
I continued to ask the students questions, and when one of them closed her eyes as if calling for her virtual assistant before answering me, I made a mental note that I’d have to address the use of implants in my class. I would never understand how this new generation could be so reckless. Brain implants had been a huge thing before the Toxic War but it had proven unsafe and an easy target for hackers once the war broke out. Everyone knew that not a single person with a brain implant had survived, and yet these kids thought their implants were safer and that what happened to our ancestors could never happen to them.
After forty-five minutes of teaching my wristband vibrated, telling me it was time to end the lecture. “That’ll be all for today. I look forward to seeing more of you for my next class.”
Knowing that at least fifty students were watching from home, I said: “And before we end, I’ll answer one more question about the Nmen for the students who are physically here.” I turned off the transmission and smiled at my audience. “You get one bonus question.”
A sea of hands went up in the air.
The young woman I chose looked excited and flushed red when everyone turned to look at her.
“Is it true that they eat dogs?”
All eyes turned to me. “I’m not sure about their eating dogs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did, since we know they are hunters in general.”
Shocked gasps were heard all around. “They really kill animals?” someone asked with a brittle voice.
I picked up my book on Ancient Greece and placed it in my bag. “Yes, they really do hunt and kill animals, and I’ll tell you more about it some other time.”
With a smile of satisfaction, I left my outraged audience knowing that by the time I reached the lecture on the Nmen this auditorium would be filled with curious youngsters seeking answers to the mystery they had grown up listening to rumors about.