Reckless Behavior: A Guide to the Early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Seven: Medical Advances
…although they consider themselves medically advanced, such technology would be laughable nowadays. Diseases and illnesses abound, including many types of mental illnesses. Interestingly, the curing of many of these in the late Twenty-First Century caused a major shift in society. Contemporary people are far more likely to take seriously an individual who says or does something out of the ordinary. This the primary reason that the time traveller must be increasingly wary the later she travels, because she is more like to be believed if…
They'd shackled up Cassia as well, and had her levitate right next to Aster, except her head was on the other end. Looking at the two of them, it was probably hard to tell who was paralyzed, as Cassia had ceased moving. Aster couldn't even detect a twitch in her toes, the only part of her he could see clearly. Croton was in the little arena again, prattling away. Thete must have been a point to his chatter, but none that Aster could detect.
"It was pretty funny how nervous you became after meeting with that old professor," the Doctor said. He was standing at Cassia's head, and Aster's feet. "As if I had anything to do with CRISPR or any genetic advances. I've been trying for years to break into the field, but haven't-"
"Years?" Cassia finally spoke up. "How long have you been here for?"
"This year will be twenty, I think." Croton chuckled. "Another little miscalculation, hm?"
Aster strained his neck, trying to roll it to the side to get a glimpse of the Doctor's face. This was getting ridiculous. They'd been brought here, tied up and floated in the air, and then… nothing. It was anticlimactic.
"I wasn't trying to speed up anything," the Doctor said, pacing. "That's another blunder you made. For a mathematician and a professor, I have to say I'm disappointed. I'd expe-"
"Just tell us what you want," Aster said. His voice was slight a bit sore from its recent underuse. "Or is this all just fun for you, having us in here as captives? What do you want?"
The Doctor's relaxed expression hardened. "You know what I want. I want a body. Which one am I getting?"
"You're not getting either," Cassia said, as exasperated as Aster was. "So now what?"
"Now is lunch. But before I go." The Doctor looked at his watch. "We up the stakes, of course. Firstly, Aster, I think you've run that mouth of yours a little too much."
"No," Cassia gasped. "Don't you dare."
"Cassia, that won't help," Aster said quietly. He saw her fingers flutter, as if they were trying to reach his, but the cuff kept her hand outstretched, away from his.
"Let me explain how this works," Croton said, coming dangerously close to Cassia's face. She stared rigidly at the ceiling .
"I've worked for years to harness the power of the minds I've created," Croton said. "I can do whatever I want with either of you. Aster's neurons are the easiest targets. I'm still willing to take either of you."
"You can take me," Aster said. "That's what I've said all along."
"Aster, you can't-"
"Face it," Aster said. "I'm the obvious choice."
"Alright," the Doctor said. "Cassia, do you agree?"
"Well, then," the Doctor said. "On with the demonstration. I can do anything to Aster's biological body. Suggestions?"
He turned to look up at the observation deck. Andrew was there, along with a couple of workers. They seemed to watching less as a demonstration and more as a boredom reliever. One of them, a short woman in a tight bun, was eating a bag of chips.
"Anyone?" The Doctor said. The observers eyed each other nervously.
"Raise his arm," Andrew said finally.
And so it happened. Aster watched the cuffs on his arms pop open, and his right arm straighten and fly up, like an old-fashioned salute. Then it dropped, and the cuff caught it before it fell.
"Wiggle his toes!" Someone else called. It wasn't long before everyone wanted to see him do something else. "Make him shit himself!" Said the woman with the chips, and she was quickly shushed by a man in white sitting next to her. But the Doctor did it, and for the second time, Aster was relieving himself in front of an audience.
Neither he or Cassia had anything else to say afterwards. His body was quivering from all the excertion.
"Now let's make this simple," the Doctor said, carefully stepping around the excrement on the ground, which a worker was busily cleaning up. "Aster, I'm going to allow you to blink. Yes is one blink, no is two. Cassia, just yell when the two of you are ready."
With that, he turned and left them to it.
So it had come to this. Molly glanced down from the rear-view mirror long enough to catch the turn, her tires screeching as she spun the wheel. She merged into the sparse, fast-moving traffic, but Samuel was still behind her. Now that he could see where she was going, he was keeping his distance.
What was he going to do once they got to the strip mall?
What was she going to do, exactly? Stand outside? She didn't know how to get in. She and Samuel had been left out of that part. She felt herself easing up on the gas pedal, then pushing harder, hovering just above the speed limit and getting to the strip mall by catching the next green light.
Samuel was on her tail as she screeched into the half-filled lot and jumped out.
She found herself standing on the pebbled concrete, just waiting. There wasn't anything else to do. The stores loomed behind her, casting a dark shadow. Samuel's car drove up to hers, and he parked right beside her. He climbed out slowly, teasingly, and didn't move towards her.
A couple of teenagers coming out of a bookstore stared as they passed by. Molly ignored them, but lowered her hands from where they'd been resting in her hips.
"Are you going to help me?" Molly said, not raising her voice. Fading adrenaline was making her quiver, the last vestige of two coffees and a hell of a week.
Samuel stayed by his car, as if afraid to leave the safety of a fast escape.
"I've been holding onto thin air, haven't I?" He said, matching her flat tone. "Since Aster got here. You've just been sticking to me because you're afraid to be alone. Is that it?" The last sentence was loud and rung through the parking lot.
Molly glanced around, but no one had been around to hear. "I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?" Samuel's face was clenched as he touched on a growl. Molly took a step back.
"I just know that I've been doing something wrong," She said. "All this time. Speed dating can't work. It can pick up on attraction but people take more than six minutes to get to know."
Samuel was still scowling. "What are you saying, Molly?"
"That maybe I don't know what I'm doing but I know we should help them," Molly said. "You know that as well. Don't be clouded by jealousy."
Samuel folded his arms. "Even if I wanted to help you rescue them, how would we get in?"
Molly didn't have to answer, as the sound of her jangling phone filled the air.
The number was local, but unfamiliar. She picked up with a sense of foreboding. "Hello?"
The voice at the other end almost made her knees give way.
Samuel was studying her. "Molly, who is it?"
"It's Aster," she said.
"There has to be an easy way out," Cassia said. Talking herself hoarse was easier than listening to the grumble of her stomach. "I mean, if you work here every day, it would be a hassle to have to go through a labrynth every time." She twisted her wrist, in the tiny space the cuff allowed. She was still stretched out,suspended horizontally in the air, but for some reason Croton had lowered her. She now hovered a meter from the ground.
"Aster, look at me," she said. His eyes were trained on the ceiling, and he was blinking away, too fast for her to interpret. And there was only two choices. Was he trying to say something?
He finally lowered his eyes to the side. They were wary, as if to say, what do you want from me? His gaze found the ceiling again. She squinted up, trying to see what he was seeing. Her neck ached from the strain on her back.
She heard the hiss of air escaping. Someone was in the arena. She wasn't sure how they got in, since the door on the white wall opposite her remained shut. Now there were steps behind her. Andrew came around. His hands were in his pockets.
"So, you made up your mind?" He said in English, very casual, as if they were discussing movies. He looked as shrimpy as ever, especially against such an imposing backdrop.
"Do you not feel bad for us?" Cassia said. She was already trying to invoke pity. Things were going down, fast. She monitored his eyes, waiting for them to rove over her unwashed, pale body. They never did.
"Not really," Andrew said, shrugging. "I know my Dad's got the right idea. You know, there's talk all the time about artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk's freaking everyone out about how you guys are gonna take over the world. I'm glad to be a part in preventing that."
"You know that we are not mechanical devices," Cassia said. She felt flush, and she was too weak to know if it was fever or anger.
Aster was looking straight at them.
Cassia played her last card. "In bed," she whispered, too ashamed to say it aloud, "Did I, in any way, give the impression of being a robot?"
Andrew lowered his eyes. "We've already invented sex robots, so nice try. Japan makes them and stuff."
Aster was blinking rapidly. Andrew cleared his throat. "So anyway, I just had a little chat with your boyfriend, and he thinks you should go."
"I won't- what?"
"Yeah." Andrew shrugged again. "So do you agree?"
Cassia floundered, her lips moving on their own. "Of course."
There was a clang. The cuffs, all eighteen of them, snapped open. The two of them fell, Cassia like a wounded animal, Aster heart-breakingly floppy.
The short distance shouldn't have ached at all, and the wave of dizziness was uncalled for. Cassia hugged her knees to her chest, trying for some absurd reason to hide her nakedness. She shouldn't have been hungry, either- she'd spent days without food in the past. Aster's breathing was heavy, on the slick floor beside her. When the room stopped spinning she rolled over, and took her mate's lifeless hands and set them out nicely at his sides, because she didn't know what else to do. His skin was so white that it made his pubes look dark, and his pale face almost matched the glinting hair on his head.
"Let him go," Andrew said, and she couldn't detect an ounce of emotion in his voice. "Come with me."
But Cassia was rooted to the ground, loathe to move or to follow Andrew anywhere. She waited there dazed, as her mate was carried away by two workers in jeans and black t-shirts. The door slid into the wall, and after Aster was swallowed into the darker corridor beyond it, it clanged shut.
He didn't force her to come, but he didn't answer her one persisting question, either. She wanted to know what deal they'd made. What they'd told Aster to make him give her up.
Or, as Cassia suspected, Aster hadn't agreed to anything at all.
Andrew stood in front of her, arms folded. "Come with me," he kept repeating, "And I'll answer all your questions."
Finally, wearily, Cassia dragged herself up, hugging her chest tightly. She went with him.
Andrew offered her a bathrobe and a tiny bottle of body wash, and showed her to a small shower stall inside what looked like a doctor's office.
The stall's door was completely translucent. Before stepping inside, Cassia turned back one last time. Andrew was slouched on a chair at the other side of the room, tapping at a small portable telephone with his thumbs.
"Now you must tell me," she said.
He startled, sitting up. "Oh, yeah. We offered him all his mobility back if he'd agree to trade you in. He said yes right away."
"Oh," Cassia said. She stepped into the stall, her back towards him, and turned on the water.
The Doctor's promise didn't come instantly. Aster was carried into a mostly empty room, where he was given a sponge bath. He watched, in a detached way, as he was handled and carried and washed and dried. He noted the sparseness of the lab, how the Doctor had scrimped on decor. It was the main reason this place gave him an eerie feeling- it had all of the technology of the Twenty-Third Century, but none of the aesthetics. Greenery, harmony and clean lines were very important in Croton's time, but he seemed to have left all of that behind.
Aster was operated on. They didn't tell him what they were doing and he couldn't see much, as they'd lain him on his stomach after toweling him off. A cold square was stuck to the back of his neck, and as soon he felt it he knew what was happening. The square would interact with the proteins in his brain, eventually coaxing them to fix his neural pathways. This thought occurred to him for only a second, because before he had a chance to feel apprehension he was asleep.
He woke what seemed like an instant later, but he knew that hours had passed. The voices around him were cheerful and refreshed, and people were still greeting each other and mentioning the snow outside. It was morning.
He raised his head. It felt like a lead weight. The muscles in his neck cracked as they were forced into action. He moved around the saliva in his mouth, grimacing at the taste. His head became too heavy so he lowered it back onto the table, but already he felt different. His body felt available to him, if not burdensome, but still available.
A minute later he tried to lift his head again. It was hard, since he was still on his back. He managed to turn his face the other way,where he was greeted with Croton's unnerving stare.
"Good morning," the Doctor said, rising from his chair.
Aster felt bile in his throat.
"You might feel a bit sore,” the Doctor said, "But your muscles are as good as if you exercise them every day. Your speech, too, should be unaffected."
Aster said nothing. His mind was churning. Croton stayed for a minute more, and then he cleared his throat. "You will not be able to stay here, of course. As soon as you get your balance, I'm afraid you'll have to return home."
Still, Aster waited. At another time, another place, he might have pounced then and there, grabbed the Doctor's throat and smashed him against the wall. But he was not a violent man, and his paralysis had made him patient. He waited until Croton left, and a male nurse was sent in to monitor him.
The nurse, short and chubby and bald, gave him a wide grin. "I've heard about you," he said.
Aster sat up slowly. It was as easy as if he hadn't been confined to a wheelchair for weeks. He noted, for the first time, that he was somewhat clothed, in jeans and a cheap undershirt. He kept his movements rigid, as if he was in pain. The cameras were at each corner of the ceiling.
He leaned forward. "Come here," he said, rasping. The nurse took a tentative step forward.
When the nurse was right above him, close enough that it looked like he was examining Aster, Aster grabbed the man's wrists and squeezed them so hard, the nurse gave a shriek of pain, and sank to his knees.
"I need to borrow your cellular device," Aster said, his voice rough, but clear as day.
"Don't- have one," the nurse gasped. "We aren't allowed phones here."
Aster lessened his grip, just by a fracrion, to allow the nurse to stand. The man didn't attempt to squirm. He just stared at Aster, whimpering.
"I guess you'll have to show me where they are," Aster said.
The nurse looked down at his hands, pressed together inside Aster's grip. "You really are a freak," he said.
"I don't like to make use of it," Aster said. He stood up, still gripping the nurse like some kind of dance. "Truth be told, I could probably kill you with a smack to the back of your head. So I will release you now, but you are going to take me to a telephone."
Eyes wide, nurse nodded. Aster dropped his hands. He'd never had to make use of his strength before. As a mathematician, it had never really come up.
He really was a different person now.
The nurse walked with him out the room and down the hallway. Aster shuffled in the manner of elderly people in the century, and avoided eye contact with anyone he passed. They reached an elevator at the end of the hall, which had a slot beside it at about neck level.
Aster saw the nurse looking around. Aster flailed, and grabbed the nurse's upper arm. The man slammed into the wall.
"I apologize," Aster said, releasing him. "I have been so unsteady since this morning."
The nurse rubbed his arm without a word, and waved his finger over the slot. The glass panel covering it slid open. Inside was a tongue scanner. Aster watched the slot re-sanitize, and then it beeped, and the nurse slid his tongue inside.
This was just one more piece of technology that Croton had brought into the wrong century. Finger scanners were still relatively new here, and it would be decades before fingerprints became easily forgable and tongues became the new ID.
They entered the elevator in silence, when it arrived.
"Do not say a word when we exit," Aster said. "Just point."
It opened a terse minute later, inside a bland office floor. Desks were separated up here by flimsy walls, and a receptionist sat at the far end of the floor, near the window. The nurse raised a trembling fat finger at her.
Aster kept his gaze straight ahead. He didn't even need to locate the nurse's cellular device- this place was teeming with telephones. He just had to locate an available one. He narrowed in on a young woman at a desk, downing the last of a tall beverage. She threw the styrofoam cup into a bin beneath her desk, and pushed back her chair.
A washroom break naturally. It would not last long, but her desk was partially hidden and Aster would not take long. He told the nurse to follow him, and slid into the desk chair, picking up the receiver. It was an older model, and it still had a wire.
He dialed a number that he'd only heard mentioned once. But when Aster heard a number he never forgot it.
Molly answered on the fourth ring.
"Where are you?" He said when she picked up.
"Quickly tell me. I do not have time."
"We're… we're by the strip mall."
Aster happened to glance out the window, and saw that they were in fact across the street from the strip mall. The elevator had taken them into the building across the street. He stood up, and far below, he saw tiny but familiar figures, standing in the middle of the parking lot.
"Wait there," he said, and hung up.
To begin with, there was a flurry of samples taken from Cassia's body- blood, urine, skin cells, saliva, hair, and a nail. And that was just the beginning. The poking might have been painful, but she was numb all over.
She wanted to believe that Aster knew what he was doing. But from the looks of it, he was… gone. The thought drained her. She didn't even have the strength to argue with Croton, who came several times to the examination table where she was strapped down.
"I don't know if I've thanked you enough," he said. "Truly, my darling, you're the reason I've journeyed to these dark ages."
"To torture us?" Cassia said. She regretted opening her mouth the moment the moment the words were out. Croton was goading her and she'd taken the bait.
"Close, but no," Croton said, coming to sit at the foot of the examination table He watched as a nurse prodded a short stick down Cassia's throat. "You see, I regret making the adjustments I did on you and your mate, and on myself. Strength is one thing, but the ability to time travel is quite another. Someone may one day use it quite dangerously."
Cassia gagged as the stick was pulled out. She licked her lips, wetting them. "You can't change history," she said.
"Ah, but I can," the Doctor said, standing up. He beamed at her. "If I can make this generation realize the dangers of creating a creature like you, there won't be any future of genetic engineering. You and I will be stuck here, but that's a minor casualty."
She had no more patience for this. Cassia lay her head back. She refused to believe that Aster wasn't coming back. He wouldn't leave her here.
∆∆To be continued...