I open my eyes to a sky of impossible blue. It’s cool, but not cold. From the clearing where I lay, I see a few sanguine leaves remaining on the surrounding maples — strange, since it’s the middle of summer.
The last thing I remember was walking into Marvin’s lab, waiting for him to wrap up his latest cold fusion experiment. I knew he’d offer a sympathetic yet objective ear for my grim discovery. Then the world slanted and twisted like a whirlpool, and I felt my senses darkening. Now … this.
Levering to my feet, I brush myself off, and step into the darker woods. My feet sink through a blanket of crisp leaves over soft, wet mud, and I curse myself for wearing heels today. In the distance, the insistent cawing of jay birds stabs the silence.
My tension snaps like a rubber band when I hear a woman’s voice call, “Who are you?” My legs give out and I tumble to my knees in the brambles.
“Sorry,” I say, “I … I’m lost.”
The twenty-something woman has a wild shock of wavy, purple hair. She is wearing colorful, orange garments of a shimmering textile I cannot recognize, tailored to her large, muscular frame. In her right hand is what appears to be a firearm of some kind, but not one that I’ve ever seen before. “What tribe are you from?”
“Tribe? Well, I live in Chicago.”
“Chicago?” She backs away, one eyebrow raised. “The city?”
Is there another Chicago? “Well, yes.”
“Uh-huh.” She tightens her grip on the weapon. “What are you doing here?”
“Please,” I say, “I don’t know what’s going on here. I was going to visit my friend, Dr. Marvin Weigel, at the University of Chicago science department, and the next thing I knew I was here. Speaking of which, where am I, exactly?”
“Save your questions.” The woman’s agitation is palpable. The veins on her forehead seem to swell, and her mouth bows into a tight, thin frown. “You need to come with me.” She motions for me to walk ahead of her, and I comply without argument. Nearby there is a clearing in which a cart-like vehicle bobs, hovering about a meter above the ground. It has no wheels. The woman signals for me to climb onto it.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask.
“The Council.” She swoops into the front of the vehicle with little effort. “And don’t try anything stupid.” Her fingers tap her holstered firearm, then the vehicle begins to glide forward without a noise. I wonder for a moment if I am being abducted by aliens, but then shake off the silly notion.
As we cruise in silence, bright sunlight flickers through the high branches. I am again struck by the vivid blue of the sky. As blue as the old photos and paintings in the Field Museum. Soon we approach a settlement nestled in a valley between tall, evergreen hills. The village architecture is all sweeping arches, impractical geometry, and unidentifiable materials. A bizarre marriage of ancient and futuristic. There are several women milling about, craning their necks to gawk at me as we pass by. The hues of their flowing garments are as varied as the array of their unnatural hair colors. The new taupe blazer I’d been so proud of this morning seems drab in contrast.
The cart slows to a stop and rocks gently in front of one of the larger buildings on the thoroughfare. The driver slides down onto the clover-covered ground with accomplished ease. “Come with me,” she says, and leads me by the arm up the steps to the entrance. Inside is a vast, open chamber, with rows of seats facing a raised dais at the far end, at which is seated a body of five older women. I assume this is the Council of which the driver spoke.
As we approach, one of the women speaks. “Drea, how nice to see you. What brings you here?” As if she had to ask. They all stare at me with wide eyes.
The woman I now know as Drea makes a gesture over her chest, and nods her head once. “I found this woman on my patrol.” She pushes me toward their eager stares. “She claims to be from Chicago.”
“Is that so?” says the woman at the center. “Have you got a name, my dear?”
I straighten and clear my throat. “I’m Dr. Gretchen Laumann. I work at the University of Chicago biology department. Maybe you’ve heard of me?” I am certain they will have.
The Council look back and forth at one another. I try to decipher their expressions — a cross between amusement and wonder. The central figure speaks again. “Young lady, are you asserting that you are the Doctor Laumann, who developed the vaccine for the Orion Plague in the mid twenty-first century?”
I falter a bit from the strange wording of the question. “Well, yes,” I say. “That’s exactly who I am.”
The central Council person frowns. “Of course you’ll excuse our incredulity,” she says, “since Doctor Laumann perished in Chicago’s destruction over three hundred years ago.”
I wait for the ice to melt in my veins. “Three hundred years … why, what year is it now?”
“My dear, today is October 30th, 2355.”
I come round from my faint in a perfectly warm, plush bed. It cradles me as if I were weightless. The bed is in an octagonal room of pastel green, with a large bay window overlooking a flowering garden. Beside the bed, the central woman from the Council sits with her hands folded in her lap, watching me.
“Where am I?” I ask. “Who are you?”
“Our village is called Oma. I am Miri, and this is my home.” She stands and crosses to a shelf on the far side, where she pours something steamy into a mug. “Care for some tea? It’s a lovely cardamom.”
I sip the warm beverage, which is delicious, and smile with gratitude.
“Now,” she says, “let’s discuss the elephant in the room, shall we?”
“If you’re looking for answers, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
Miri sighs. “So you still profess to be Doctor Laumann?”
“I don’t profess it. It’s the truth.”
“But Doctor Laumann was at the University of Chicago when it was annihilated.”
I shrug. “I was hoping maybe you could explain it.”
Miri bows her head for a moment, then makes a gesture with her hands, and a portion of the wall illuminates with a still photo of me, wearing the outfit I currently have on. “This is the last known photo of Doctor Laumann before her death in 2049. I must admit the resemblance is uncanny. Right down to the necklace.”
I nod. “That was taken this morning. It was for a publicity piece the university is doing on the vaccine. Look, Miri, I wish I could explain it. You have to understand that to me, this all happened earlier today. I have no idea how I got here, but I have to assume it was the same incident that destroyed the city.”
“Indeed. They attributed it to your colleague, Doctor Weigel. His experimentation with cold fusion suffered a catastrophic failure. Five million people died that day.”
Poor Marvin. What a legacy to leave. Of course it was nothing compared to mine. “After taking that photo, I’d hurried back to my lab, where I’d confirmed a serious side-effect of my vaccine.”
“Oh, we know all about the side effect,” Miri says. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the absence?”
“So I was right,” I say. “The Y chromosome abnormality?”
Miri nods. “The last man on Earth died on November 3rd, 2139.”
My heart sinks. My CRISPR-based vaccine may have wiped out the Orion Plague, but it wasn’t until nearly the entire world’s population was already vaccinated that I’d learned of the abnormality. At first, no one thought twice about the sudden preponderance of baby girls in the maternity wards. Then one day, in passing, I’d overheard an OB-GYN say how he hadn’t delivered a baby boy in almost a year. I’d spent the next several months in my lab trying to either confirm or refute my darkest fears.
Horribly, my fears were confirmed. My vaccine — which I’d given over to the public domain so that even the smallest, poorest countries could use it — had a side-effect. Oh, it didn’t hurt the subject directly — vaccinated men went on to lead long, healthy lives. But what it did do is introduce an abnormality in the Y chromosome of every spermatozoon they produced. The abnormality prevented any Y chromosome blastocyst from implanting in the uterine wall. Mankind — and by that I mean only man-kind — was doomed.
“Once the rest of the scientific community had caught up with your discovery that day,” Miri says, “fertile men became quite a commodity. Governments rounded them all up and had them banking sperm as fast as they could produce it. The cryogenics industry exploded, trying to create storage facilities large enough to hold it all. Sperm were only doled out to the best doctors, and administered to the most fertile women, trying to keep the population from dwindling too quickly. Of course all the new babies were girls, so humankind was already clocking down at that point.”
Miri hands me an absorbent cloth to wipe my tear-filled eyes.
“Tragically, despite all the advances we’d made in cryogenics, eventually the frozen samples became less and less viable, the longer they’d been in storage. Around the year 2209 — seventy years after the last man died — the last sperm died as well. At that point, the population started a pretty precipitous decline.”
A wave of nausea crashes over me, and I retch into a wastebasket at my bedside. Miri stands before the bay window, with her hands clasped behind her back.
“You’re a hero, Gretchen,” she says.
My brain struggles to comprehend what she just said. “Excuse me?”
“No, you’re more than a hero.” Miri turns to me with a wide smile. “You’re a god. I, and many other like-minded women, belong to an order of society called the Laumannites. What you did, it was genius. To develop a means to wipe all men off the planet, without violence? It was inspired. You’re legendary.” Miri kneels on the carpeted floor before me and kisses my hand. “You’re an inspiration. Oh, Gretchen, I don’t know how you managed to escape Chicago, and I don’t care. It’s such an honor to have you here in my home.”
I pull my hand away, mind swirling with confusion. “You’re saying that you’re glad there are no men?”
“Oh, most definitely! Men were the scourge of the planet. Men were a disease. It was the most beautiful, poetic justice that that disease would be eradicated by a virologist!”
I dig the heels of my palms into my eye sockets, trying to come to terms with what Miri is telling me. Then something dawns on me. “Miri, you’re, what, about sixty-five?”
Miri’s smile brightens. “It’s kind of you to guess that, but I’ll be eighty-three next week. Longevity is just one of the many advances we women have managed to make once our planet’s resources and environment weren’t being ravaged to make wars and billionaires.”
“But … you just told me the last sperm died off almost a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention, my dear,” Miri says with a wry grin. “When the last of the stored sperm started to go bad, the top minds got to work on human asexual reproduction.”
My jaw drops open.
“Stem cells. We figured out a way to harvest stem cells from the bone marrow of a donor woman, and evolve them — for lack of a better word — into sperm cells. Everyone alive today — including yours truly — has two biological mothers.”
“And we never could have done any of it,” she clasps my hands in hers, “without you.”
Apparently word has gotten out about the Mysterious Time-Traveling Savior of the Human Race. As I stroll around the village, there are women from far and wide coming to fawn over me like a Hollywood superstar. I confess it’s been easy getting used to.
Plus, I am in awe of what this population of women has managed to achieve. I wish I could show Marvin all they’ve done with fusion — cheap and abundant energy, it turns out, has been the vehicle righting so much that had been wrong. The blue sky and fresh air recount sweeping changes in carbon emissions. The original Amazon thrives in the absence of the corporation. Borders have blurred, as womankind all around the globe has gravitated to independent clusters of camaraderie, like Oma. Poverty and hunger are non-existent. Maybe my vaccine’s side-effect wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
But in the end, human DNA is a selfish molecule, regardless of which letter its chromosomes resemble. At the crest of the hierarchy of needs comes the struggle for self-actualization, which no abundance of energy can influence. Here at this cerebral apex is where the last vestige of our nature must somehow satisfy its blood-lust. Over breakfast, Drea has just educated me on why there are armed patrols in the surrounding forests.
She says the Laumannites are only one of two predominant orders of this modern society. The other is the Daughters of Adam. “They consider you the devil incarnate,” Drea confesses to me, almost in apology. “They’re Bible-thumpers. Literalists, clinging to the whole ‘God created man, and woman came from his rib’ nonsense. Hypocrites. They’re more than happy to partake of the modern reproduction methods, even while insisting that they’re all abominations because of it. If you ask me, they should just let themselves die out.”
I guess I’m lucky Drea found me first. “So you’re telling me that after all the pontificating about men being responsible for all the world’s ills, we’re still fighting wars with each other?”
“Well, I wouldn’t call them wars. Skirmishes, maybe?”
I roll my eyes at the semantics argument. “But if I’m the devil incarnate, then maybe it’s not such a good idea for me to parade around like a rock star.”
Drea’s brow furrows. “What’s a rock star?”
I sigh. “Never mind that. What if one of them hears that I’m here? I wouldn’t want to start a ‘skirmish’ right here in the village.”
“Thus the patrols. Look, you needn’t worry. We’ve stepped up security since your arrival. No one’s getting in here.”
Just then, on the edge of the village there is a commotion. People are shouting. Screaming. Running.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I say.
Drea groans and pulls out her sidearm and hands it to me. “Just in case,” she says. Then she hurries towards the fracas. I hear the gunfire, rending the tranquil morning and any sense of security I’d managed to construct in the few days I’d been here. Other armed guards from the village pour from their homes and converge on the melee. I move quickly into the Council building and crouch between two rows of seats.
The village has fallen silent. The only sound is my own rapid breath. Then there comes a new sound. It is the thumping of heavy footsteps.
I blink and shake my head at what I see standing in the Council building doorway.
It’s a man. Dressed in military garb. Holding a gun so large it’s almost comical.
“Doctor Gretchen Laumann,” says the man. From the tinny timbre of his voice, it is immediately obvious what I’m seeing. It’s not a human man, but rather a machine constructed in his likeness. A machine created by the planet’s new gods: women.
It speaks again. “Surrender, and no one else will be harmed.”
“Gretchen, don’t you dare!” Miri shouts from wherever she’s hiding in the front of the chamber. “You’re too important.”
The ‘man’ raises his weapon and sprays the vicinity of where Miri’s voice originated. I hear her cough and sputter. She’s been hit. I whimper in anguish, clutching Drea’s gun in my trembling hands.
The thump of footsteps is getting closer. “Surrender, Doctor Gretchen Laumann. There is no escape.”
It will be a fitting end for me, after having wiped men off the globe, to be taken down by the closest thing left to a man. But I don’t have to do it quietly. I leap to my feet and charge the intruder, firing Drea’s weapon repeatedly. Bullets pockmark the broad pectorals and ricochet around the room as I empty the clip into his faltering frame.
Then we stand, face to face. I am panting. My pulse is drumming. Through the ringing in my ears I hear him say, “There is no escape.” Then his vise-like hand closes on my shoulder as I cry out in pain and frustration.
I guess there is no escape from human nature. In any of its forms.