The singles event ended with the same exuberant vibe that it had started out with. Everyone had had a good time, nobody harassed anybody for a kiss, and there hadn't been any allergic reactions of any sort. Basically, one of the better events. The participants were gone and the cleaning staff were putting away glasses by ten.
It was from one moment to the next that Molly found the room empty of people. When she'd shrugged on her coat and grabbed her laptop and papers, she found Samuel waiting on a couch at the other end of the lounge, watching her. He stood up, and crammed his hands in his pockets.
"Hey," he said, coming toward her with a shy smile. "Tonight was great." He slid her arms beneath hers, resting them on the small of her back. "You know, I'm... Really happy we're doing this together."
Molly squeezed him tightly. He could be a jerk, but he could also be… this. Sweet. "If you're apologizing, I accept."
"I am, I… I really want this to work out between us. I do." He pulled her into a sway, so they were dancing in tandem to unheard music. Molly rested her head on his chest, pensive.
"What? Is there something wrong?" He said.
"I kissed Aster," she said. "You should know. It didn't mean anything and if still doesn't, I promise. I just thought we should start again with full disclosure, you know? No secrets between us."
She waited, holding him tight to feel his reaction. Samuel let out a deep breath. "Okay, then. My turn?"
"Um, yes. Right."
Another deep exhalation against her cheek. "I said I slept with some people, remember? Three times. It was short with each, and I have no connections with any of them. It was around August." That was when they'd had a big fight about the business. Molly tensed but stayed silent. She need to hear this.
"The first was Jenn."
Molly pulled back to look at his face. "Jenn Collins, my best friend friend, Jenn?"
Samuel squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes, that Jenn. It was just a short thing, really, we were both drunk-"
"Oh my god, Sam." She shook her head, too dazed to get angry. But it was coming.
He folded his arms. "You were with someone, too."
"Yeah, but we only kissed! And come on, Jenn is one of my closest friends!"
"Friends, plural? Please. You're only mad because she's the only girl you talk to."
"Don't you go there." Molly's voice had a tremble in it.
"Anyway, this happened two months ago," Samuel pointed out, his hands finding his pockets again. "You must of kissed him, what, in the last two weeks?"
"It's not the same." Molly felt her eyes widening. The anger was bubbling up.
"I thought we were starting over," Samuel said. "Coming clean! That's what you said!"
"So… Do you want to hear who else?"
"No. Not really."
Samuel shrugged, probably not sure what to say next. He hated when she got upset suddenly, even with good reason. How they'd stayed together for so long was beyond Molly. It seemed like he was always exasperated with her. Honestly, sometimes Molly exasperated herself.
"I'll be waiting outside," he said with an I-give-up smile.
Molly couldn't find it in herself to match his upbeat tone, fake as it was. "Yeah," she said. "I'll just check if we left anything behind."
They parted ways. She found some flyers by the bar, the table number holders she'd ordered from Amazon, and someone's scarf. She also came across Aster, sitting by a stripped-down table in the corner, taking down long gulps from a glass. The bottle in front of him was halfway filled with warm brown liquid, and the label had been ripped off. He was staring straight ahead, nails tapping on his cup with a plink plink sound. It wasn't clear if he saw her standing above him.
Molly cleared her throat. "So, did you…"
Did you find your girlfriend? Are you still taken? Is it fucked up how attractive you are right now, those mournful eyes and long, thin fingers?
Aster took a sip. "No."
Molly nodded, clasping her hands, and rocked back and forth on her heels. When he didn't elaborate, she said, "What are you drinking?"
Aster looked up, and blinked as if surprised that she was still
there. There was buzzing coming from behind him, though Molly didn't see any flies. "What you would really like to know is why I am alone here with a bottle of alcohol, instead of with my mate."
"Yeah, pretty much. What happened?"
"Cassia left," he said, pouring himself another glass. He looked up at her with a crooked smile. "I enjoy this beverage. It has a pleasant warming effect." He kept pouring even as the glass got full, and a puddle formed on the table. The whining, metallic sound got louder.
Molly leaned forward as he downed his drink. "Aster, are you… buzzing? Is that coming from you?"
"Yes!" Aster grinned. "That means that I am intoxicated. I should not be getting intoxicated."
Molly rolled her eyes. Aster didn't give out smiles like that, so he had to be really wasted. "Come on. Samuel's waiting outside with the car."
Aster backed up, knocking into the liqueur cabinet. Bottles rattled.
"Oh, for God's sake," Molly said. She just wanted to be home. She came around and pulled his wheelchair out from the table. Aster grabbed his wheels, but his fingers were shaking, and not like a shaky old man. It was as if he was being electrocuted.
"Are you okay?" She said, watching as he lifted up his jumping fingers, as if holding them to the light.
He laughed. "Myself's artificial nerves do not appreciate alcohol."
"Great. That's just great." She took his handlebars again but with more of an urgency, and pushed him across the carpet. His legs were jumping, too, but Molly really became alarmed when his head drooped onto his chest. He picked it up a moment later, disoriented. She hurried down the hall outside the lounge. They were at the back of the hotel, so the door to the parking lot opened to a set of concrete stairs framed with manicured bushes.
"Shit." Molly peered into the lot, searching for Samuel's car. "Maybe we should just go around to the front."
Aster's head fell again. She shook his shoulder to wake him. Ten seconds later, a bright light flooded them both. Samuel's headlights got closer, then veered left. He stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and got out of his car. Looking just as ready to go as Molly did, he sprinted up the stairs, and scooped up Aster below the knees. He was left waiting, bent over, when Aster didn't slide a hand over his shoulder. "Come on, man," he grunted. "Give me some support here."
"He's drunk," Molly said, hovering behind them. She would carry Aster if she could, but he was a more than half a foot taller than her, and probably weighed a lot more than she did. Samuel was bigger than everybody, so he had little problem.
"Oh, fuck this." Samuel grunted as he bore Aster's full weight, shifting his grip to support his back as well. Aster slumped against him like a doll. The buzz was unmistakable now, getting more insistent by the minute.
Samuel carried him to his car, lowering him into the back seat. When Aster swayed unsteadily, Molly made a quick decision and slid in beside him. Samuel retrieved the wheelchair form the top of the stairs, folding it with some effort and stowing it on the front seat.
Molly buckled up and leaned back with a deep sigh. She enjoyed being in a dark car at night. Beside her, Aster fumbled with his seatbelt. His fingers were vibrating as if he was on a massage chair. Samuel had already put the car in gear, and they were halfway out the parking lot.
"Here," Molly whispered. She leaned over to buckle him in. Aster was sheet white. God, she hoped he wouldn't throw up in Samuel's car. That would do nothing to improve the relationship between the two of them.
"Are you okay?" She asked.
Aster nodded, but looked at his hands with a grimace. The rice passed in silence.
"What's that noise?" Samuel eventually asked.
The car was dark. Molly pressed her hands around Aster's to still them.
"It is I," Aster said. His speech sounded more warbled then ever. God, he was drunk. "I have artificial apparatuses on the interior and exterior of my body."
"Like prosthetics? Why are they making noise?"
"Because I have consumed alcohol." Aster squirmed away from Molly, but only to sit on his hands.
In the rearview mirror, Molly saw the glint of Samuel's drawn brow. "You aren't going to explode, are you?"
"Into small, wet pieces that will adhere to your vehicle's interior," Aster said. He seems to be more alert now. "Let the records show that I have warned you."
"And, we're here!" Molly tried not to sound too excited, and got out of the car. A small light brightened her front porch, and the bushes rustled in the wind. Samuel helped her get Aster out of the car and into his chair, and then drove off without a word.
It was dead quiet as Molly fumbled with her keys. Aster waited for her to go inside first, as always, and then followed after. He went straight to the bathroom, slamming the door behind him, and Molly sank onto the couch to let the night's events sink in. She heard the shower turn on to full blast.
She thought about Jenn, and Samuel, and her eyes filled with tears. Why did love have to be so complicated?
She'd always had the same fantasy: simplicity. While other people loved TV shows with tortured romances, where the love interests broke up and got together and broke up for seasons on end, Molly liked the simple ones. Like Chandler and Monica on friends. Minimal drama, and no one breaks anyone's heart. Why couldn't it be like that?
It was forty-five minutes later that Aster emerged from the bathroom. He was barefoot and bare-chested, with a towel draped over his thighs.
He rolled up to the couch. Molly noticed that he'd shaved with the razor she'd set out for him. There were a few nicks on the edge of his cheek. He smelled fresh, like her coconut shampoo that he seemed to have taken a liking for. "You did an excellent job tonight," he said. The vibrating had mostly calmed, and she barely heard the buzz anymore.
Molly heaved herself upright. "Thank you," she said wearily. "And I'm… really sorry about Cassia. What are you going to do?"
Aster looked away. "I do not wish to... Discuss. I will formulate a plan tomorrow." He looked at her like he wanted to say more, maybe stay in the living room because she was giving off waves of sadness, but he turned and headed to the spare bedroom.
Molly listened for the creak as he transferred to the bed, and then for more creaks as he shifted his weight. Soon she only heard the incessant ticking of the living room clock, the little purple one over the computer. She pulled out her phone and spent an hour checking emails and Facebook, replying and commenting to people she didn't care about. When she found her eyes closing, she peeled herself off the couch to get ready for bed.
The bathroom mirror reflected back smeared mascara and drooping eyes as she brushed her teeth. She stripped, dropping her clothes in a pile at her feet, then leaned over to scoop them up because it was easier for Aster to maneuver if the floor wasn't cluttered. She headed down the hall, and the floor creaked right as she passed the guest bedroom. She stopped, listening for his even breathing, but couldn't hear it. He was awake. The buzzing had quieted to a low drone.
Molly cracked open the door. Light spilled over the hardwood floor. "Aster?" She whispered.
There were no blinds, only embroidered lace on the window, so the room was a palette of greys. The dark silhouette rustled about the covers. "Yes?" Aster said.
She closed the door behind and took a measured step toward him. His eyes were closed. Somehow Molly had expected him to be one of those people who slept like a corpse, especially because of his legs, but Aster was on his side, his lips slightly parted on the pillow. "Mohy?" he mumbled, perfectly still.
Molly sat on the edge of the bed, next to his calves. "I- I just wanted to say that-" she gave a short, nervous laugh. She had goosebumps under her oversized Buffalo Bills t-shirt. Aster waited, or maybe he was already asleep. He had one arm under his neck, and the other hanging over the side of the bed.
"I don't really have anything," Molly said, and for some reason, her eyes filled with tears. "I'm just so… lonely, Aster. Some days I'm just so lonely."
Aster stirred, and she realized he was adjusting his legs so he could sit up. She couldn't see his face, only the form of him, unfamiliar but comforting. He sighed, and put his arms out for her to fall into. His chest was warm, and when she curled up against him he rested his chin on her head. "Do not cry," he said, more like instruction than consolation, and Molly laughed despite herself, sniffling at the same time. When he finally released her, she felt a head rush. Maybe she'd drunk more tonight than what she'd thought. But thinking about being alone tonight made her skin crawl. Aster was still sitting up,watching her, a hand on her folded knee, rubbing gently, almost absentmindedly.
"Can I stay here tonight?" She said. "Just tonight, I promise."
It was unnerving, not being able to see his reaction. But Aster leaned over and kissed her forehead. "Of course," he said. He settled back under the blanket, but held up a corner for Molly to slide into. It was bliss. Aster lay on his back this time, straight as a rod, and Molly felt guilty. He was a man, after all, who now had a woman in his bed. Molly inched closer, very cautiously, until she was right beside him. Warmth from his body radiated between them. She waited and felt him slowly relax, in slow bits as his chest rose and fell. When he was almost asleep, she slid a hand across his collarbone, and brought her legs up near his. Sleep came quickly, after that.
Reckless Behavior: A guide to the early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Six: Sex and Society
…because each member of the opposite (or same) sex is a potential sexual and/or life partner, much of media and advertising is focused on finding 'love.' There is pressure on every adult individual to be paired, and to seek out that pairing.
Even already-coupled pairs may experience jealousy, since there is no guarantee that their partner won't come across a superior mate. This concept still lingers in our society, despite the current selection process that pairs mates with 99.993% accuracy. This is due to an ancient biological imperative that drives us to seek what we don't have, without realizing the value of what we've got.
Cassia closed Croton's back door with a protesting squeak. It was nine thirty, and the sky was the color of a washed-out shirt. She was making as much noise as one would by deliberately crunching through the leaves, not that it made a difference. Croton was immersed an interactive two-dimensional game with his roommates, a 'video game.' Even out here, she heard the puta-puta-puta of machine guns and the squeal of gasoline vehicles. They wouldn't hear her if she yelled.
The grass was overgrown, and bare dandelions framed the peeling red fence. Cassia wedged herself through a space between the wooden slats. The neighboring home featured a garden with wilting plants, dying in the face of the approaching cold weather. A mossy greenhouse stood crookedly at the back,and she couldn't tell if the walls were originally tinted green, or if the glass was filmy. She slipped through the entrance and latched the door shut.
Finally, privacy. She released the upper layer of her Q-band, the part that wasn't threaded into her veins. She felt dizzy as her worldview diminished to a few shelves of overgrown potted plants and broken glass bottles. It was disconcerting, but she had been losing the use of her Q-band anyway. The connectivity of this century was through wires and an external Internet. There was no Web in the Earth itself yet, and her Q-band didn't like that.
There was only one way to find Aster, and that was through the manual bringing-together of their Q-bands. She could do it through a little-known trick that her brother had taught her when they were children. There was a technique people used during sex to get into their partner's head, apparently making for a thrilling experience. Cassia had scoffed at the thought when she'd first heard about it. Here, though, it would be useful. Now that she was sure Aster was nearby, she had to find him and explain about Croton. All the quicker they could leave this dirty, fume-filled era.
The only problem was that if Aster was wearing his Q-band while she did this, the signal would interfere with his artificial nerves. He'd probably get an electric shock.
She glanced down at her Q-band. She couldn't wait any longer, and neither could he. She would do this quickly. Oh, he was going to hurt. She would be very, very, quick.
There was a cracked blue chair in the corner of the greenhouse. Cassia tested her weight and sat down, because he didn't know what her body might do while bringing-together. She held her disconnected Q-band at eye level, delving into it and looking for Aster, not just her memories of him but his Print, the representation of him in her mind. It was harder, since her thoughts had to travel through her wrist, up her palm and fingers and into the black Band. When she had his face she pressed into her wrist, drawing the energy from her body that ordinarily charged the Q-band. The energy, finding no Band on her wrist, surged up her hand, gathering speed.
She screamed. Aster's face wobbled. She plunged, falling from the height of a thousand Mount Everests, needles puncturing every pore. She landed with a fell swoop, as if a parachute had released, yanking her towards the wind. Motion ceased.
She was inside him.
Yelling, gnashing, burning from inside as he was hit with more electricity than the human body can withstand.
The pain lasts two seconds, but is the aftermath that is hell. I shake and shake, the linger of that searing pain throbbing down my legs. I tremble even after my nerves stop singing, breathing so loud that it clouds other thoughts.
I am prostate on a bed. I partially covered by a blanket, and wearing something soft on my midsection. There is a woman beside me. She was holding onto me for a long time, I can feel the memory of her long slim arms and fuzzy hair that grazed my left nipple when she shifted closer. I have awoken her. She sits upright, tired. She is concerned for me.
Thoughts are blocked again as humiliation, blasting and full, surrounds me. I do not panic when it comes because it is familiar, I know I have felt this was many times before. I try to discern why, but I can only focus on one section of my body while also juggling my mental responses, which I flip through now. A hundred million neurons fly down my spinal cord, where there is a jolt as they flip to my artificial nerves. Then the signal dies. I don't know where they were going.
Why do my cheeks flare with shame? The answer comes in the form of crude mental images. Something with my… penis. Quswàk, I have a penis.
My heart beats like a drum. The woman is gentle, saying tender things in Late English. I can't get to Broca's area, the language center, fast enough to to translate.
The effect of the shock withers away. And I am thrown from this place like a pebble in a slingshot, here, and the next moment gone, gone, gone.
I am in…
Orange clay with a chip on the side, caked with soil. A spider crawled down the prickly stem. In the greenhouse. Smeared glass with a hairline fracture. Cassia was there. She was Cassia.
Glass crunched under her back as she rolled over. She was on the floor, and there was blood from her nose, from the honey-brown glass that scraped her cheek. She was crying, she already started before, and now she tried to stop. She doesn't cry ever but now she was. As though drunk, she rooted with scrabbling fingers for her Q-band, and as soon as it snapped back on, she could breathe normally again. She waited for the plants to stop spinning before she attempted to stand. Even here, in a garden, in a greenhouse, she could feel Aster's location. She was as much with him as she was here.
And though she didn't want to find him yet, she staggered to her feet. Shards rained to the ground. She had to find him before his location faded from her mind.
Unlatching the door, Cassia bared her face to the wind, and set out.
He fell to the brink of blacking out, but didn't. As he caught his breath and started to see shapes and hear sounds again, Aster tried to remember where he was. The tip of his tongue tasted something warm and thick, something coating his lips and chin. Blood.
Hands on his shoulders, shaking him. Molly's face came into view, mouth agape in horror. "Aster! Aster, what's happening?"
He raised his hand to wipe his mouth, cringing at the pins and needles that shot up his wrist. His arm came away with a gloppy smear, blood matting down the blond hairs there. Something had gripped him. He didn't know what.
"Did you.. grab me?" He said, sitting up slowly.
Molly slapped her chest, over her heart. "You just gave me a fucking heart attack! What the hell is going on?"
The memory of that jolt loomed large enough to still hurt, but he lifted his legs over the side of the bed, towards where his wheelchair sat. He kept the sheet around his waist. "I am alright. But please, did you grab hold of me?"
Molly was backing away, already off the bed. "No, I… I just shook you. I don't know what the fuck was happening but there was a fucking forcefield in here. I'm not crazy. I felt something." She was at the door, hand on the knob.
A forcefield? Aster felt like something had taken hold of him, every part of him, had reached deep in side and pulled. It couldn't have been Molly. He looked at her again, for the first time in real focus. Her hair was a lot larger than he remembered. The image sparked a connection. People in bed, hair spiked up for a few moments…
Cassia had done that dangerous sex trick. They were brought-together. Although he didn't feel any different now than before, aside from a pounding headache.
His fingernails scraped at the edge of the mattress. How dare she? He transferred into his wheelchair and rolled past Molly, out the open bedroom door. She barely noticed him go. She was staring back at the surface of the mattress that he'd been lying on. There was a charred outline of his body where the green pastel sheet had been, and the smell of burning plastic. Tendrils of smoke rose from the stuffing of the mattress. Molly appeared to be in shock.
Aster headed straight to the bathroom to wash his face. All the lights in the house were off, and the computer's normally sky-blue face was black. Aster changed first, wrapping himself again in the sheet when he was done. Parts of it had holes, and it smelled of smoke, but he didn't have clean pants at the moment. He was just beginning to rub his chin when someone pounded on the door.
Molly whimpered from the bedroom. Aster muttered obscenities under his breath, Late English ones, and went to answer the door. He wasn't yet telepathic with Cassia but he gambled that it was her, standing on the front porch.
He released the latched lock and rolled back. Whoever it was waited for a moment, perhaps stunned to be given the honor of letting themselves in, and then did so without any hesitation. Crisp autumn air greeted him, as did his mate. Her clothing, a white vest and pants, were fluorescently clean, meaning she'd self cleaned them recently. It was her skin that gave her away, soil caked to her dingy white hair, scrapes all down her cheeks and two perfect trails of blood coming from her nose. And this was all covered in a wet layer of sweat. Cassia never sweated.
He hated her for so many things, but he had never seen her more beautiful. Maybe it was their time apart. Maybe he had truly missed her.
When she reached down to hug him, he hugged her back, like they'd done when they'd first met and knew nothing of each other except you are my statistically proven, perfectly chosen mate. One day, we will love each other.
Then Cassia reared back and slapped him across the face. The sound was like a clean snap, diving through his ears and over his cheek. The force of it almost tipped him over, and if Aster thought he'd achieved maximum pain ten minutes ago, this stung all the same. Cassia was stronger than five naturally-born men. When her genes had been altered, her body had become strong, while his had stopped working completely.
Molly came into the living room, almost tiptoeing to the computer desk, where she could see both of them and retain a distance. She clutched her bathrobe against herself like it would protect her.
The first thing Cassia said was in Late English, and was presumably for Molly's sake.
"You slept with her?" She practically spat.
Aster held his palm against his cheek. "What is wrong with you?" He said in Manghish. "You just roasted me alive and that's what you want to know?"
"Okay, that's it." Molly broke their locked stares by waving her arms. Her voice still trembled, but it was slowly gaining power. This was her home, after all. "Cassia- I'm assuming you're Cassia- come with me so we can get something for those cuts. Aster, wash your face on the kitchen sink." Something dark settled across her features. "And then you guys have a lot of explaining to do."
An explanation was exactly what she needed, so Aster had to find one fast. He shrugged and headed to the kitchen, where he turned on the hot water. His mind was reeling.
There was the something called the Threshold of Absurdity. In connection to the obvious element here- time travel- Aster was not worried at all, since in this early part of the century quantum tunneling was absolutely absurd. If they would have traveled to a let period, though, they would have had to be more cautious. Aster was able to talk about his home in this era without lying, because he knew his true origins would never be considered. Case in point was Molly- she thought him an Irish 'hippie,' whose mathematical profession somehow enabled him to receive the latest technology. Aster had not aided this fantasy at all- it was completely Molly's doing.
But now he'd maxed out Molly's Threshold. He couldn't explain the smoke and electricity in her terms.
As he wiped his face dry with a scratchy towel, he heard the women emerging from down the hall. He rolled out to join them.
Cassia had a piece of cloth sloppily taped to the side of her face. She sat down on the couch and didn't speak for a long time. Molly hovered by the doorway.
"I'm sorry," she said in Manghish, staring at her hands, which were folded in an orderly fashion on her lap. Her back was rod straight. It was the second thing Aster had noticed about her when they'd first met, her posture, after the perpetual questioning look that she had in her golden brown eyes.
"I didn't copulate with her," Aster said in Late English.
"Funny," Molly said,turning to go. Apparently she'd heard enough. "I'm getting such a feeling of déjà-vu."
"It doesn't matter," Cassia said in their native tongue. "We can't dwell on something so stupid. We just gotta do what we gotta do, and then we're out of this hellhole."
Aster reached for her hand and she snatched it away. "Isaid it doesn't matter now. I never said I didn't care," she spat.
Aster cocked his head. "Okay, well, what have you got so far? Made some friends, did you?"
"I already found the target and searched his home."
"You found Croton?"
"Yes! While you were fooling around with that wild-haired-"
"You mean that Croton is that guy at the bar? The one you were holding onto like a panting fangirl?"
Cassia folded her arms. She smelled like moss. "I was playing a part! I needed to infiltrate his house!"
Aster snorted. "I bet you slept with him too, to play the part."
Aster's hands dropped to his rims. "Quswàk, you..."
"Aster, I had no choice! I resisted for too long. If I messed this up, we'd never get through to him!"
Everything he wanted to say vanished, and he found himself shaking his head, over and over, lip curled in disgust.
"You were in bed with that woman," Cassia said. "It's Intent versus Action without Intent."
"Don't get academic on me."
They stared each other out in stewed silence. Finally, Cassia said, "What happened to you? Nerve malfunction?"
Aster nodded, dropping his gaze to his knees. They were bonier than they'd ever been. "Yeah. Waist down, can't move anything."
"Well, get on your back."
"Get on your back." Cassia looked bored, like she wanted to get this over and done with. "Let me fix it. Do you need help lying down?"
"No." And certainly not from her. Under his mate's judging eyes, Aster gripped the sides of his chair and lowered himself to the ground, slipping down at the end. He flopped himself onto his stomach. The rug tickled his cheek.
Cassia got onto her knees beside him. "What kind of underwear are you wearing?"
Aster reached back and resettled the blanket. His cheeks burned. "Just do it," he snapped. He relaxed his neck, and felt the cold prick as Cassia scanned his artificial spinal cord with her Q-band.
"Just a little misplaced wiring," she said, totally calm now that he was nervous enough to be perspiring. "The tunneling messed up my Q-band, so I'm not surprised."
He swallowed hard as Cassia placed a cold palm on the small of his back to hold him still. He heard the buzz as she switched on her laser.
To be continued…