The Felicitas had always been a good place for a coffee: small, bright, and clean, with high chrome counters. Bakarne liked to stop there with her work friends, Carla and Elisabet. The three of them laughed as they put together their orders on the touch screen by the front of the bar, then watched as the automatic brewers whirred to life. Bakarne scouted out a green plastic table for the three of them. Her sweet-smelling latte macchiato warmed her hands. It made her happy to relax like this.
” – so then,” said Elisabet, “she goes, ‘What we’re doing here is reorganizing the reference desk. And there’s no ‘I’ in ‘reference desk.” And then Kendal goes -”
At that moment a knight in full-plate armor appeared six inches above the floor and fell with a clatter. The noise turned women’s heads all over the quiet café. He raised his hands to Elisabet.
Carla shrieked. Bakarne dropped her coffee.
“What?” said Elisabet. Bakarne half-watched, snatching up a bundle of napkins from the next table to clean up the spilled macchiato. The other two just gaped. The knight pushed himself up noisily until he was on one knee.
“My lady Elisabet, embodiment of beauty. So long have I sought thee!”
“Where the hell did you come from?”
The knight raised his visor and smiled. He had a rugged face, square and masculine, and clear blue eyes obsessively fixed on Elisabet. Bakarne supposed it was a reasonably good face if one liked that sort of thing. “Does it matter?”
Elisabet’s cheeks turned the color of radishes. She cleared her throat. “Well… No. I guess not.” Bakarne was not certain why it didn’t matter, but she kept quiet. A switch seemed to have flipped in her friend’s mind, and she had a feeling arguing would be pointless.
“I have sought you,” the knight explained, “for years. Ever since I first heard your name.”
“Oh,” said Elisabet. “Well, maybe we could talk about that. Over coffee.”
“You already have coffee,” said Bakarne, mopping up the table.
Elisabet gestured vaguely at her untouched ristretto. “Over different coffee.”
“Of course, my lady.”
Elisabet pushed her chair back. “Sorry, girls. Nice talking to you, but you know it’s been a long time.”
She made a muffled tea-whistle sound as they left hand in hand. It sounded a lot like “squeee”. Bakarne dropped her napkins in the wastebasket. She and Carla looked up at the space where the knight had appeared, then down at the floor where he’d landed, then over at each other.
“What the hell?” said Bakarne.
“That there?” said Carla. “That was impossible. She should have told him it was impossible.”
“Impossible and creepy,” said Bakarne. “They’ve never even seen each other before.”
“Yeah. Definitely creepy.” Carla looked out at the door. “I want one.”
Men were scarce on Bakarne’s planet. The Great Plague five years earlier had been mildly unpleasant for women, but in males, it was swift, painful, and deadly. After finding a cure a little too late, the richest and most powerful women had whisked away the few remaining men into private apartments to be kept like precious artifacts. The sleeper ship from Earth, carrying safely immunized replacements, wasn’t due for another ten years. So a sky-fallen man in shining armor made the news.
“I think it’s interesting, that’s all,” said flame-haired Courtney at work. They were fussing over a pile of unshelved books: electronic tablets with wired-in content, cards with passcodes for protected content online, mixed together haphazardly with old-style printed volumes from Earth.
“Mm-hmm,” said Bakarne. “Interesting that they broke the laws of physics, I guess.”
“No!” said Courtney. “It’s just interesting. The whole thing.” Bakarne shrugged.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” said Courtney. Her voice became muffled periodically as she leaned in to shelve the printed books and slot the electronic ones into their cubbyholes. “I think it’s great how well we’ve gotten along without men. Everything’s been just exactly the same as always. We really don’t need them at all.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Bakarne, which was usually the safest response to that speech. Bakarne still grieved at times for the father and brothers and friends she’d known. But she still went out for coffee, read books, and did her job, same as always. In the early days after the plague she’d made the mistake of saying so. Some of her friends looked at her with an odd anger, and then sort of slumped down, mumbling about arms to hold them while they slept. Other people agreed much too enthusiastically. Like they knew deep down they didn’t mean it.
“And it’s so wonderful not to have to worry about that sort of thing,” said Courtney, too enthusiastically. “Really that sleeper ship can take all the time it wants.” Bakarne shelved the last book and scrolled through the computer display at the wall, updating their list of stocks. She scowled.
“Against the Sophists is missing. That’s the fourth one this year.”
“Mm-hmm. Are you going to the Felicitas after work?”
“I guess so,” said Bakarne. She hadn’t really thought about it.
“Good,” said Courtney. “I’m going.”
Too many women stood craning their necks in the Felicitas. Bakarne couldn’t even stand comfortably, let alone find a seat. She could not understand why so many people were so enthralled. She watched as Elisabet elbowed her way over through the press of bodies, garnering cries of “Ouch!” and “Hey!” and dirty looks all around.
“Oh, Bakarne!” said Elisabet, smiling and ignoring the looks. “I’m so glad you’re here!” Bakarne raised her eyebrows.
“Where’s your knight?”
Elisabet shrugged. “He disappeared in the morning. But look! The news is all over!”
Carla elbowed her way in. “It wasn’t just you. Haf Yates came in three hours later and she got one too. Hers was a cowboy.”
“Ooh,” said Courtney. “It’s so interesting!”
Carla nudged Bakarne’s arm. “Who would you want, Bakarne? An old philosopher in a toga, right?”
“No,” said Bakarne.
“A young, cute philosopher in a toga?” said Elisabet. Bakarne tried to find words for the vast lack of difference this made. While she was still thinking, a delicate silk-haired young man fell on top of Courtney with a crash.
“Oh!” he said, disentangling himself. “I-I’m so sorry!” He looked at her and blushed.
“Oh my God,” said Courtney.
The two of them elbowed their way out of the café in a hurry.
“Does anyone else think this is creepy?” said Bakarne. She’d already said it to Carla yesterday, but she suspected Carla had forgotten.
Elisabet patted Bakarne on the head. Bakarne squirmed away as best she could in the limited space. “Don’t worry. You’ll get one soon.”
“Eurgh, I hope not.”
She wasn’t sure, exactly, what bothered her so much. Well, the men who fell from the sky might carry diseases. Or someone might get attached and feel awful when their partner disappeared. But she wasn’t really worried about that—just repelled. It was like everyone else had suddenly lost their minds.
A burly fireman fell to the floor next to Carla, pushing past Bakarne like she wasn’t there. “Communists have set fire to the building,” he said. “But I’m here to rescue you!” Carla squealed. Bakarne left the café alone.
It went on for weeks. Men were popping out of the sky all over now. Bakarne took to spending overtime in the library, cataloging reprints of ancient Greek dramas. When the cataloging was done, she picked one book at a time and sat quietly by the window with them. She started imagining what would have happened if men fell from the sky in, say, Antigone. Nothing good, she thought.
When she missed having sane friends, she struck up a conversation with Kendal, the library’s short-haired archivist. At least there was one demographic immune to this madness.
Bakarne had suspected, back when the Plague started, that lesbians would suddenly be everywhere. Women who liked sex had to get it somewhere, after all. But it hadn’t happened that way. There were bisexuals who’d switched to an all-female diet, and a few straight women who awkwardly snuggled into half-romance-half-friendships. But for the most part, if two women came out in public holding hands, they’d be greeted with glares. No straight woman wanted the reminder of what she couldn’t have.
Kendal’s friends hung out at the Aarde, a comfortable pub with rattan chairs and beaded curtains where it was okay to like what Kendal liked. Kendal settled in on the sofa with her girlfriend, who had light-emitting diodes in her hair, changing color with her mood.
“This is Bakarne from the library,” she said.
“Hi,” said Bakarne.
“Hi,” said the girls.
They quizzed her about books, music, the reason she’d come to the Aarde. They groaned in chorus when she talked about the crowds of mad straight women.
“All these years telling us not to throw our sexuality in their faces,” said Kendal’s girlfriend, “and now look at ‘em.” She pecked Kendal on the cheek like it was a challenge.
“It’s the planet’s fault,” said Kendal, after returning the peck. “Seriously? Just men, no women? No dashing elven princesses for me?”
Her girlfriend pretended to smack her.
Kendal tugged playfully on the diodes. “Well, I suppose you’ll do.”
Bakarne felt vaguely irked at them curling together, but that feeling faded. At least these people didn’t act like there was nothing else interesting in the universe. She got talking to a girl in heavy eyeliner who liked Aeolic verse in translation.
“But in the original Greek,” said Bakarne, “it’s much easier to see what difference the anceps syllables make.”
It went well until late in the evening, when Kendal, slightly tipsy, smiled over at her. “So when did you realize you liked girls?” Bakarne blinked.
“I don’t, really,” she said. “I just came here to get away from the Felicitas thing, like I said.” She pursed her lips, suddenly realizing this might be a faux pas. “I hope that’s okay. I didn’t mean to intrude on your safe space.”
Kendal shrugged. “It’s fine. But I thought you were. I mean, you never showed an interest even before the Plagues. I figured when the rain started, you finally figured it out. So you’re straight?” Bakarne shook her head.
“So you’re not straight.”
“And you’re not into girls.”
“What are you into? Lemurs?” Bakarne drew back.
“I just wanted a good conversation.”
The eyeliner girl smiled appeasingly. “Are you sure you’re not into girls? I mean, it can kinda sneak up on you. It took me a while to realize.” She was several years younger than Bakarne, which Bakarne refrained from pointing out.
“You seem like the right type to me. Maybe you’ll like it when you try it.” Bakarne took a good long look at the assembled women. She tried as hard as she could to summon up the littlest spark of sexual interest. But it just wasn’t happening. Conversation wound down after that. People who’d been eager to talk a minute ago were now less so. When Bakarne stepped out of the pub and turned down the rain-swept road home, she was in a foul mood. She wanted to pluck the attraction out of each woman’s head and wring its neck.
A swaggering, leather-jacketed boy dropped down in front of her.
“Hi,” he said.
“Go to hell,” said Bakarne.
He obligingly disappeared in a puff of flame.
Life did not grind to a halt. The women who looked so insane at the Felicitas still reported to work every morning, designing electronics or running the government. They even still read books. Bakarne had never thought she was that weird. There had to be someone like her somewhere in this town. The trick, she decided, was to find a group talking about men and pick the one who didn’t squeal.
She found her mark, or thought she did, in a diminutive college girl who showed up at the library on a group project. Bakarne helped them find the Restoration poetry, then quietly listened while pretending to catalog. The girl had a lot to say for the first ten minutes, while the conversation stayed on topic. But when it strayed into a discussion about which poets it would be fun to meet at the Felicitas, she looked away.
Bakarne caught up with her after her shift. Unlike her companions, the girl had stayed at the library. She sat curled on a comfy chair, just reading.
“Can I help with anything?” said Bakarne.
The girl sighed. “Probably not. Can you flog people who don’t stay on topic?”
Bakarne grinned. “No. But I feel your pain. What’s your name?”
Akua held up her book. “I like this one. We’re supposed to analyze his use of nostalgia and compare him to Alexander Pope.” She wrinkled her nose. “I still don’t know how people got from that to sex. It’s like they don’t even care.”
Bakarne led her to the little park in front of the library. They talked about books for a long time. Akua’s mind zeroed in laser-like on the topic at hand. Serious and intent, she dissected literary device after literary device. Bakarne cross-referenced and made recommendations. She could like this girl, she thought. They could be friends.
Just when Bakarne’s stomach started growling for dinner, a slender man in an impeccable suit fell to the ground. He put a finger under Akua’s chin—ignoring Bakarne— and gazed intently into the younger girl’s eyes.
“I think you’re coming with me,” he said.
Akua’s eyes went very wide.
“You don’t have to,” said Bakarne, feeling protective all of a sudden.
“I know,” said Akua. “Um. I’ll be right back.”
Bakarne expected her not to come back. Still, she waited half an hour, just to be polite, reading Akua’s discarded book and ignoring her empty stomach. Then she sighed, went back inside to return the book, and began to trudge home.
A crowd had spilled out around the Felicitas, as usual. Bakarne rolled her eyes and thought growling, grumbling thoughts.
Then something fell into her hands. A book.Bakarne looked down at it.
Elegies, said the book, in Greek, by Tyrtaeus. She opened the front cover, disbelieving. For centuries these poems had been known to classicists only in fragments. But here they were in their entirety.
Bakarne put a hand over her sudden grin, muffling a tea-whistle sound. It would have been an awful lot like “squeee.”
She turned and rushed back to the library. She knew she only had until morning.
“A book?” said Carla in disbelief, the next day.
“A book,” said Bakarne, beaming.
“Better you than me,” said Elisabet. And Bakarne had to agree.
She stopped getting angry after that. Eventually the novelty wore off. Women still went out hoping for a man, and still squeaked with delight when they got one, but after a month or two they could talk about other things.
Every few weeks, when Bakarne least expected it, another ancient manuscript fell from the sky. She suspected that the ancients hadn’t really written these words. That they’d been built from her fantasies, just like the knights and firefighters at the Felicitas.
Still, there were worse things to do than have her fantasies fulfilled. So she drank the words up shamelessly. And she wondered every now and again if Earth’s men knew what they’d be up against, ten years from now, when the slow, slow sleeper ship arrived.