The last woman on Cyprus lay on dewy grass under the vault of night. She scanned the confusion of stars and tried to form an image of the woman she had loved. Her eyes followed an artificial satellite skimming the edge of space. She had no idea what it was. She died.
When Phoebe Mahtam - Girl 2 - turned forty-eight and was no longer able to gestate a child she was no longer dissuaded from travel. Her first desire in this new mode, unattached to the demands of the future, was to visit the past, a past which had blithely demanded her existence. She desired to visit her grandmother, her great-grandmother, her great-great-grandmother. Her mother, Percival Mahtam, was equally anxious to visit his blithe ancestors and make a proper introduction. So Phoebe, her mom and her dad-mate Jerry flew to England.
They had successfully avoided the dolorous intrusions of the media on the fiftieth anniversary of the calamity, no more certain than anyone else about what to say now that x-number of days had passed. Crossing the Atlantic gave them the sense that they were finally leaving the world of their own calamity behind. They would visit the reverberations of someone else’s calamity for a while.
As they navigated the sights of London, enthralled with touristy confusion, they were surprised – of course – to see a ratio of older women similar to the environs of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Merely shopping, merely eating. There were so few, but there were so many. Seeing women out and about in a new place was unexpectedly comforting.
Their official host, the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford, was anxious to show off Allhallows Nest, its community and school for girls at the mouth of the Thames. They were given their own cottage but had no desire for privacy, wanting nothing more than to hear the sound of a foreign accent spoken by children. Girl after girl knocked politely to offer vessels of food, portraits of their guests in various media, pillows embroidered with messages of welcome and adulation. The aura of exotic youth filled the cottage to capacity till finally they were led out through the campus to meet even more swarms of girls and young women. To the visitors such a trove of fecundity in a single place was wonderfully imprudent and boastful, like seeing the Crown Jewels displayed on a picnic table.
The Nest girls were enraptured by this extraordinary family. She was shorter than they had imagined, the dad-mate taller. And there he was, in a single body the first father and the first mother, crouched down in a kind of sling in his wheelchair. Most of his body had failed him below the arms, and his arms functioned only clumsily with limp hands. But his shoulders were still square and sharp. Darkening spots beneath wispy white hair showed that he was 78, but he still had the shoulders of a man.
Percival and his aged dad-mate and his not-so-young daughter tirelessly allowed themselves to be seen, tirelessly acknowledged every smile. And each was more than happy to recite the numbers which most of these treasures already knew.
Mother Mahtam, how many great-granddaughters do you really have?
Twenty-four. I really do.
And you have eleven great-grandsons?
That’s exactly right. And two great-grandbabies on the way.
Do you remember all those names? All the grand’s and great-grand’s?
Yes, and me and my dad-mate and my daughter could each write a list of every name and they would all be perfect.
This was perhaps not quite true, but now the girls and the young women felt they knew him. And now they also wanted to touch him. But they were too polite to ask. Someone asked Jerry if it was true that Mother Mahtam had a cavity in his side deep enough to fit a large grapefruit. Jerry informed Percival that these British girls were just like American girls.
Oh! You want to see it!
Jerry unbuttoned Percival’s shirt to expose the great cavity, the place where there had once been a womb.
I’ll bet you want to put your hand in there, don’t you? Well, I don’t mind a bit. Is that hand clean? I’m just joking, you’re sparkling, you’re absolutely sparkling.
The first girl, perhaps nine, stretched out her hand, lower and lower, fingers splayed, tingling with excitement as it went within his abdomen. He urged her a bit and she pressed down lightly onto the sallow concavity of skin, giggling.
And that’s where she came from? the girl asked, looking up at Phoebe. She politely held the pose as her friends clicked some pictures but she was anxious to move on to the next opportunity. She ran to Phoebe and asked Can I see yours? Phoebe unbuttoned her blouse so that the girl and the crowd could get a look at her exhausted womb, her ripple-sagging flesh and flattened breasts. The girl ran her fingers over the supple contours. More photos. So this is after a few times, nine times, right? Wow.
The next day it was time for Percival to enjoy one last dividend of his decades-old endeavor. At the beginning of it all there had been countless promises, mostly kept, of benefits for all the pseudo-placental mothers and their dad-mates. Constant medical care, of course. Appropriate jobs, of course. But also promises of gifts from various companies, lifetime supplies of this-and-that. Some clever mother made an offhand suggestion.
Hey, jetpacks. How about a jetpack?
Well, why not. Several companies had been building the technology in a variety of forms before the calamity. But for a decade afterwards there had been too much economic upheaval, too little demand for glib delights to sustain these small businesses. Even the motion picture and video game industries had largely collapsed.
But eventually the spirit of reckless fun came back. Several entrepreneurial engineers dusted off their old equipment or purchased the patents of competitors. The jetpack industry became a phenomenon far beyond what could have been projected in the years before. Several more decades of development had produced positively marvelous results.
And here it was, in full flower, on the bank of the Thames. Rossy-Ushas Flight normally operated deep in the heart of the city, from Tower Bridge to the Thames Barrier, but for these unique guests from America they wasted no time moving their flight deck barge down to Allhallows Nest.
Percival had practiced in a simulator in Boston, but it made his heart race, nonetheless, as he was lowered into the Zapata Sidecar. It was specially designed for paraplegics and hundreds had flown in it but the geometry was still a bit disconcerting, a cross between a bathtub and a recliner mounted on an oval platform with six peripheral jets pointed downwards. As the flight deck motored out into the river he okayed all the systems checks on the heads-up display inside his helmet. He gave the thumbs up to the ground crew. Batteries on, starter motors up to speed, and he was off.
The Sidecar roared upwards on a blast of turbines, hovered briefly, then powered out over the river. It rose higher and higher, perhaps twenty metres. He swirled around in figure eights, zoomed this way and that, and waved to all down below. Every girl on the campus waved back. He wanted to swing down right over their heads but safety protocols, and an automatic corridor limiting system, kept him from doing anything foolish.
Fifteen minutes later, fully sated on adrenalin and vertigo, he came back down for a soft landing on the flight deck.
Now it was Phoebe’s turn. She, too, had done virtual practice in Boston, but for a different rig entirely. Hers was the latest Rossy/Browning hybrid, Olivia 4. It was an ungainly looking rig, a massy core of twin dorsal engines and folded wings with a spindly sprawl of struts and drop-tanks. Suspended on a steel rack the thing seemed half-built, fragile and vacant. On the ground below it there was a small Zapata platform, the size of an ottoman, which would act as a booster stage. Phoebe stepped onto the Zapata, snapping her toes and heels into the latches, then leaned back-first into the main rig. She secured some of the straps herself as the crew double-tested every point on the complex harness. They went through systems checks, wound up and idled the turbines. When the crew stepped away the rig suddenly had scale and purpose, a complete form.
She squeezed the throttle and the Zapata platform beneath her feet screamed and strained to lift her upwards and upwards. The wafting heat of the blast reached the nearest crowd of girls as she tipped a few degrees forward and began an arcing trajectory, a willful projectile accelerating northward into the broad throat of the Thames. Within seconds she was moving at 65 kph. As she revved the twin Browning turbines at her back she pitched further forward at an indecisive angle. The Rossy wings hinged out on either side, fluttered a bit, locked into place and took her weight, fully prone, accelerating. An instant later the Zapata booster released a drogue, the mass unlatched from her boots and she felt the final thread of gravity cut free. True lift. True flight. A pair of drop-tanks deployed and she kicked up to 170.
It was wonderful to feel fear. To feel uncertainty. Wonderful to feel truly in control. Phoebe had given birth to nine children but at this moment she felt a birth of herself, free of the history of herself. She embodied a machinery of ecstasy driven by gears of pride and joy.
On the north side of the river she S-ed this way and that over the Canvey Island mudflats, exploring the limits of machine and nerve. Heading west she paralleled a zig-zag of ruler-straight, manmade embankments as the dense suburbs of Leigh Beck and a farm of petrochemical tanks blurred past her right wingtip. She gained some altitude to examine an intriguing industrial installation fast approaching, the deep sea port of London Gateway. The flight corridor limiters allowed her to swoop down absurdly close to the absurdly massive iron arms of giant stacking cranes cantilevered above an even more absurdly massive container ship neatly berthed, neatly stacked with packages of every color from every port in the civilized world.
She regained altitude as she made a wide U-turn to the left across the narrowed river and over the green Cliffe marshes, flying high enough to not frighten the birds that sing for the Hoo Peninsula.
As she neared Allhallows Nest she dropped far lower than was prudent, just a few metres above the water. All the crowds of girls jumped and waved and videoed, and a hundred pair of binoculars pivoted in unison. And then she began a spiraling climb that pushed her higher and higher. The stall indicator in her heads-up display lit up so she straightened into a steady grade aimed out and out towards the sea, the foot of the North Sea.
At two kilometers altitude she turned back to the west, nosed up into a controlled stall and revved the dorsal turbines to establish a vertical hover. There she stood on the sky, motionless, wings outstretched. A statue on the sky.
This was the view which had brought her here. A private view, a private meeting. She saw London, sprawled against the horizon.
Hello Mom. My other Mom. There you are. My egg. Our egg.
She stood there on the sky for as long as she could until she was scolded by a flashing indicator. Expertly she tipped forward and accelerated until the wings took control of the air. She spiraled down to the sea, straightened into an accelerating glide path, pulled up and leveled off to skim the water, screaming past the Nest, hundreds of eyes unblinking and unterrified.
It’s astonishing, isn’t it, what men do? What women do. What men do.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There were 14,363 males.
There were 83.7 million females.