All four of the ladybugs were pleased to get out of New York early. The stress of being locked up in their hotel under guard and the threat against their lives hung over them like a cloud. Having the chance to spend two full days in Chicago before the concert, instead of only one was just as welcome. Rather than chartering another dirigible, the band was given the use of an official government airship.
“I didn’t know a Science Police agent could summon a dirigible at her whim,” commented Ep!phanee to Agent Andrews.
“We can’t, but the Science Council can. There are quite a few Ladybugs fans among them, I’m sure, and I doubt that they want any of you to hitchhike to Chicago.”
Every school girl knew that the Science Council ran the world. They had since the great Science War, which began in 1956. At that time the last remaining totalitarian rulers had tried to expand across Europe and Asia. A coalition of nations picked themselves up from the depths of the Great Depression and fought back. When the war was won, a new world government had been created. Science Council members were chosen for their knowledge and wisdom and acted for the good of humanity.
Once the airship S.V. Rosalie Morton had left LaGuardia, the two agents continued their investigation. Agent Wright spoke to each of the crewmembers and support staff of the band and Andrews interviewed the two remaining musicians. The first was Penny Dreadful. They met in Andrew’s cabin and sat at the small desk beside a large window as the clouds passed by outside. She was a large woman though not fat. If she had been a building, she would have been called structurally sound. And a skyscraper. She was about five foot eleven. She weighed around one hundred fifty pounds, a good thirty pounds heavier than she was on the old album covers, on which she had seemed extraordinarily skinny. The white corset, not quite reaching down to her waist left plenty of cleavage, and she wore long white gloves decorated with tiny pink bows. Her white layered net tutu skirt left fourteen inches of bare, white thighs above her knees, which were covered by white lace stockings. She wore white combat boots. Her huge mane of red hair was still styled in the dreadlocks she had worn on stage, and she had two huge hoop earrings and a smaller hoop in the middle of her lower lip.
“Thanks for seeing me,” he said.
“You’re kidding, right? Before yesterday I’d never seen a man in real life before. This is really a treat for me… you know, besides somebody trying to kill me and all.”
“So you think you are the target?”
She shrugged. “Steffie’s probably right. A lot of people were pissed off when Carpetmuncher hit the air. That’s the name of the song, um… no offense.”
“I think it’s a great song,” he said.
“You’ve heard it?”
“I bought the album the day it came out.”
“Oh yeah. I’m a huge Ladybugs fan, and that includes your solo albums. I remember watching you on the Dorothy Kilgallen Show, and I had to present my PhD thesis the next day. So you see; it’s at even bigger treat for me to be assigned here with you.” He watched her for a moment, and then asked. “I’ve been north for two years now, but I still don’t really understand the anti-homosexual attitude. There are plenty of women running around dressed as men, my partner for instance, with her little fake mustache. It all seems pretty open.”
“Not really. We’re still very parochial. Even though men have been gone from most of society for years, there is the tradition around the world of women not going out unescorted. So women like Agent Wright and Alexa Rothman, faux-men, are tolerated and even encouraged. With no men to escort women, someone just had to take their place. Sex in some ways is really just an extension of that, but nobody talks about it. Women pretend that faux-men are men and for the most part, treat them that way. Women who openly have sexual relationships with other women, or at least with other women who look like women, are ostracized.”
“That’s the other thing that surprises me,” said Andrews. “How women look. Without many men around, I expected to see relatively few women putting on makeup, but you all do… except those pretending to be men.”
“I imagine that most men and women were surprised to find out how little women dressed up for men and how much they dressed up for each other. It’s all about outdoing each other. That includes painting our faces, and wearing jewelry.”
“Yes, I knew women pierced their ears, but I wasn’t expecting everything else.”
“Maybe sometime I’ll show you all my jewelry.”
This seemed as though it was meant to be suggestive, but Andrews couldn’t find anything particularly arousing in looking through a jewelry box.
“Besides those who are upset over homosexual content in the music, can you think of anyone else who might have something against you?”
She stared back, smiled, and then rolled up the bottom of the white corset to reveal her smooth featureless stomach.
“You mean because I have no belly button—because I’m a vat baby?”
“That’s one possibility.”
“That’s hardly my fault. They should blame Anton Dilger, not me… Are you all right?”
Andrews had turned white and his eyes widened.
“Are you all right? Do you need the doctor?”
“No.” He took a deep breath. “No, I’m all right. It’s just that… in the enclaves… we don’t ever say that name. Not ever. It’s worse than any profanity or blasphemy. It’s just not tolerated.”
Penny nodded, tugging on the ring through her lower lip.
Sixty years before, during what was still known as the Great War, German-American scientist Anton Casimir Dilger had come up with a plan to keep America from joining the allies. Not content to poison American cattle with Anthrax, he had created a strain of an existing disease, some said influenza, though no one had ever identified the original. With it he had infected several cities along the east coast. Though initially killing almost sixty million men, women, and children, the disease mutated over time to affect only the males of the species. There had been more than 850 million men on earth before he began his sabotage. By 1930, there were less than 200 million, and by 1950 there were less than 10 million. Governments had sent their remaining men to enclaves in the far southern reaches of the globe where the disease didn’t seem as virulent, and there most of them remained. In the last years of his life, the great inventor Nikola Tesla, in an attempt to save the species, had designed and built the baby vats, where girls were grown from their mothers’ cells. The first vat babies had been born just after Tesla’s death in 1943. Penny was born in 1945.