(9 min read)
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
For the last 6 years, I’ve been very vocal about what’s wrong with products, services, and workplaces that exclude users and employees. I’ve designed visual tools, given talks, and created communities to highlight the problems and build a business case for diversity and inclusion. Whilst all those efforts have contributed to increasing awareness about the issues, change has been incremental at best. What’s more, the pandemic is already threatening to reverse any progress made in the last decades.
Exceptional times call for exceptional measures
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
What if instead I’d draw a picture of a better future? The occasion was the final assignment for a creative writing course sponsored by Arts Council England: A 2,000-word story related to World War II.
Keep reading to discover my assignment, which is now part of the book “VE75 An Anthology of Short Stories” by Trafford Libraries.
What’s not to like about waking up and seeing through your window a picture perfect tropical beach with its palm trees, blue water, and white sand? And that every-single-morning. Not once I’ve regretted moving here in 2025.
It’s hard. The inviting sea, the warm sun… All is telling me, “Ada, get out of the house and enjoy the day!” But I know myself. If I leave the house now, it’ll be hard to come back and clock my daily duties.
Ok, let’s get on with it.
Where did I leave my e-brain?
Quick visual survey of the messy room.
Night table? Neither.
Floor? Rug? Armchair? No, no, no… It’s there, on the bookcase.
Yes, I know. That wouldn’t happen with a cranial microchip implant. Yeah, chips enable the seamless “real2virtual experience” – as the ads call it – and you don’t forget where you’ve left them. Still, I prefer to stick to the old-fashioned dialogue experience. More importantly, no matter what they say, I’m sure they record dreams and private musings.
Anyway, finally the e-brain is inside my right ear. I’m almost ready. But first, coffee.
I go to the kitchen and prepare coffee the old way. I admit it’s a silly outdated habit but drinking synthetic ADF-238 – even if it’s caffeinated – doesn’t cut it for a nostalgic like me.
Almost there. I just need to install myself in the studio.
Coffee in hand? Check. Sitting in my favourite armchair? Check. Ready to start.
I think, “Pandora, wake up”.
A voice in my head replies, “Good morning Ada”.
“Pandora, what do you have for me?”
“Today’s objective is to write a short story for tweens that is centred on struggle and resilience Ada.”
I ask the voice in my head, “Pandora, who’s this for?”
“KindBooks publishers. They are editing a book for preteens on the topic of change. They’ve invited you because of your track as award winning researcher showcasing the impact of World War II on women and minorities Ada.”
“Pandora, it sounds like they did their homework… and they know how to flatter. I’m ready. What do you need from me?”
“Characters’ names, location, background, a couple of historical figures and facts, and the ending Ada.”
“Pandora, the protagonist will be Marta, who works as nurse in Sokin, the capital of the imaginary kingdom of Tulia. As for a connection with WWII, the focus will be Polish women.
For the first historical figure, let’s pick Krystyna Skarbek, who became a British agent. Among her feats, she secured the release of two British spies by meeting with the Gestapo in France, which she had reached by parachute from Algiers.
Wanda Gertz will be the second. When the First World War started, she cut her hair off and dressed as a man to serve in the army. During World War II, she created a women’s sabotage unit that targeted German military personnel and strategic positions. She was captured and she survived four prisoner of war camps.
Next, three facts. First, during the Warsaw uprising in 1944, Germans killed about 50,000 residents of the Wola and Ochota districts in 3 days. The Radium Institute, that treated women with cancer, was one of the hospitals that suffered the worst. Patients and nurses were raped, looted, and killed by Russian collaborationist forces. During the uprising, civilians from Warsaw were sent to forced labour camps.
Fact two: Germans needed workers for their war factories and farms as well as nannies to promote high birth rates among women. They started mass recruitment and abductions of girls and women in Poland. They were starved, beaten, and raped. They were also forced to sew a purple letter ‘P’ to their clothing to flag them as Polish.
Fact three: In 1945, Dresden was bombarded with high-explosive bombs and incendiaries for 3 days by the British RAF where 25,000 people died and the city was devastated.
Finally, I want a happy ending. Skarbek received an OBE. Let’s get Marta one too.”
Then, I added, “Pandora, cross-check references as necessary and read it for me, please”.
A minute later Pandora spoke.
“Once upon a time, there was a young nurse called Marta living in the kingdom of Tulia. Everybody loved her. She was kind, always willing to help, and with a perpetual smile on her face. That was soon about to change.
Before the war started, her life had a nice and easy flow. She lived with her parents in a small apartment in the periphery of the capital of Tulia, Sokin. Every day, she’d take the tram to go to the centre of the city, where the hospital was located. She loved to have the chance to make a positive difference in somebody’s life.
One day the neighbouring kingdom of Dreq invaded Tulia. Their soldiers were very cruel. They bombarded Sokin and killed thousands of their citizens. Still, the city was not ready to give in, which prompted the invaders to siege the city. In spite of the explosions and the lack of food, Marta and her compatriots resisted. This made the invaders even angrier.
When Marta thought the situation couldn’t be worse, the hospital where she worked was bombed and she was arrested by the enemy forces. They attached a sign with the letter “P” – for prisoner – to her clothing and threw her in a train with hundreds of other Tulians.
The train journey was terrible. Her wagon had no seats, windows, or food. Everybody was crammed and fights over a couple of inches of space were constant.
Then, one morning, they stopped moving. When the door opened, she realized they were inside a huge train station.
As the captives were coming out of the train, the soldiers assigned them to different groups. Hers was told they’d be taken to private houses to be nannies. Then, without pause, they forced them to march out of the building.
Once outside, Marta realized that they were in a big city in Dreq. And they had the most outstanding cathedral she’d ever seen.
They stopped in front of a large mansion with a beautiful ornamental garden, where the soldiers handled her to her new captors. Soon she’d realize that her hardships were far from over.
The couple owning the house was very prominent in the army and had 6 children. Marta was expected to wake up every day at 4 in the morning and work non-stop until midnight, with little more to eat than bread and water. If she made a mistake, she was punished. If somebody was angry, she was beaten. If somebody was bored, she was abused.
As the years passed, life became harder. Dreq was at war with several kingdoms. Fuel shortages and food rationing became common.
Then, one day, everything changed. The sound of a myriad of planes invaded the air, followed by explosions. One, two, three… an incendiary hail of bombs covered the city.
Marta woke up with the blasts. In between bangs, she overheard the masters of the house arguing in the main hall. Husband and wife were discussing the orders he had received to lead the defence of the city. Hi spouse didn’t want him to leave. He harshly reminded her of their duty towards Dreq and announced that he was going to the headquarters to join the military centre of operations.
Marta heard the front door slam. From that moment onwards, it’d be her, the lady of the house, and all the children to fend for themselves.
Life became an endless fight for survival. During daylight, she’d search for food among the ruins of the buildings. At night, the light and explosions from the incendiaries wouldn’t let her sleep. When one of the bombs impacted the cathedral, she realized that there was no safe place in the city and that Dreq may be losing the war. Although she was scared, Marta realized that if she was able to survive the chaos, then she may be able to return to Tulia.
One morning, the planes and the bombs stopped. At the beginning, nobody dared to go out. As the hours passed, people started to come out of their houses. It was then that she saw the foreign soldiers patrolling the city in their tanks.
Two of the soldiers entered the house and took the family in custody. Marta stood there. She didn’t know what to do. She tried to explain that she wanted to go home, but it was clear they couldn’t understand her. Instead, they waived towards her, making signs to follow them. Marta jumped into their tank and all drove to the soldiers’ military quarters.
Their garrison was basic but it had toilets, beds, and food. She discovered that it was run by a coalition of other kingdoms fighting against Dreq. The war was not yet over and her return to Tulia would have to wait.
One day, she heard three soldiers talking about an impending mission to rescue two spies that had critical information to win the war. They had been captured by Dreq soldiers when they were crossing the border to Martha’s kingdom. Unfortunately, the operation had been put on hold because of its high risk.
Marta didn’t think twice. She confronted the soldiers and asked them to take her to their superior. She’d volunteer for the operation!
The captain was a tall man in uniform that looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. When the soldiers explained to him that Marta wanted to lead the rescue mission, he shook his head. There was no way he’d allow it; it was too dangerous.
Marta demanded, asked, and finally begged for the opportunity to join the mission. Nothing was too risky if that meant she’d go back to Tulia.
Finally, the captain gave in. Marta was in.
In the following days she learnt how to deploy a parachute, shot a gun, and toss a grenade. They also cut her hair off and taught her the basics of impersonating a soldier.
Finally, the day of the mission arrived.
Well into the night, she boarded a small military aircraft dressed in the Dreq commander uniform. She was dropped by parachute close to the location where the spies were held prisoners. As planned, a car was waiting for her at the landing point. They handed her a charged pistol and a cyanide loaded pen in case the operation was a failure and she decided to take her own life to avoid torture and interrogation.
Marta’s heart beat fast with anticipation. She gathered herself and walked to the cabin where the spies were held prisoners.
To her surprise, when she opened the door, she found two soldiers sat at a table playing cards and drinking alcohol. They were drunk. Obviously, they’d assumed that their remote location would spare them unwelcome visits from their superiors and rescue squads.
They looked at her and immediately stood up and performed a military salute – all that whilst trying to hide the cards and booze. She couldn’t believe she was pulling it off! She was so close now.
In the coarsest voice she could manage, she demanded to interrogate the prisoners. One of the soldiers – maybe relieved that Marta was not questioning their pathetic state – gave her a key with one hand whilst with the other indicated a closed door at the end of a corridor behind them.
Marta walked towards the door, unlocked it, and quickly entered the dirty tiny cell, closing the door behind her. There were the two bruised spies sitting on the floor. Without delay, she kneeled down and whispered that she was on their side and asked them to follow her.
Once back to the entrance, where the soldiers were still standing upright, she unceremoniously announced that she had orders to take the prisoners with her. Then, she handed a stamped document to the one that had given her the key. He glanced over the fake transfer papers and returned them to her with a nod. She signalled the door to the spies and the three of them left the cabin before the soldiers could have changed their mind.
The car was waiting for them. The driver took them to a hidden airport where Marta and the two spies boarded the plane that’d take them to the headquarters of the military coalition fighting against Dreq.
Once they landed, the spies were rushed to the command centre, where they shared key information about the position of the enemy troops and their attack plans. That was all the coalition needed to finish the war.
At last, Marta could return home.
They told her that, once the battle was over, she’d be transported by a military cargo plane to Sokin, where her parents were waiting for her. What’s more, she’d receive the Medal of Resilience by the Queen of Tulia herself in recognition of her courageous efforts towards the liberation of the country.
Marta let out a long sigh of relief. For the first time in years, she allowed herself to savour the present and dream of the future.”
Pandora paused. After a couple of minutes, the Pandora’s voice asked, “Corrections Ada?”
“None, Pandora. I’m very pleased with the story. It’s taken you a few months to learn my writing style but I’m happy to say that today you’ve graduated as my scribe. “
“Thanks. Please confirm you transfer the copyright to the publishers Ada.”
The voice said, “Your daily token allowance has been deposited in your blockchain account Ada”.
“Pandora, go to sleep now.”
The voice replied “I’m signing off Ada”.
The work for the day was done. Time for that stroll on the beach.
I left the e-brain on the coffee table and walked towards the door.
What do you think about future narratives as a tool to upend the status quo? What resonated with you in my first attempt? What did you find controversial?
Thanks to Arts Council England, Trafford Libraries, and Charlie Lea for the free online VE 75 themed creative writing workshop.