In the shower, they didn't speak, and Aster kept his eyes closed the entire time. Molly's sleeves were rolled up but they still got wet, and she got shampoo in his eyes. All the while, he didn't twitch.
Molly turned off the water and reached for a towel. She wasn't sure if she was supposed to dry him in the chair, but she didn't want him dripping all over the house, so she began towelling him off, starting from his face. His eyes were still closed, so she let herself take in his body. It was a different body from when she'd seen it that first morning. Aster was gaunt, hollowed out. She gently wiped down his bony chest, and lifted his arms one at a time. Secretly, it was thrilling.
God. She hadn't had sex in a month, and this is what it was doing for her.
Another thought spring into her head. Samuel had a new theory about Aster, one that he was adamant that Molly test for him.
"Coughing," Samuel had said yesterday, while they stood at the printer waiting for the Excel sheets to print out. "That's the true test. You need to see if he can cough."
"You've become a conspiracy theorist." Molly had shook her head, getting ready to catch the printouts. The first few sheets slid into her palm. "We don't need to investigate Aster or Cassia, okay? It makes them uncomfortable."
"Yeah, because they're hiding something." Samuel had that intense look, and nothing Molly would say could stop him when he was on a roll. "Get Aster to cough. If he can cough, he's not really paralyzed."
"Where's that from, Reddit?" She tried not to sound annoyed. She'd become Aster's defender lately. "Of course he can cough. And trust me, he's paralyzed."
"It doesn't make sense. It just doesn't make sense." Samuel turned, returning to his desk.
Molly was brought back to the present when Aster's eyes flew open. "What are you doing?"
Her hand had come to a rest on his thigh, and she was rubbing back and forth. Face warming, Molly yanked her hand away. "Sorry."
Aster's face was unreadable. There was a knock on the door.
Cassia opened the door. "I can take over," she said, stepping over Aster's clothing.
Molly couldn't leave fast enough, ducking her face to hide her burning cheeks.
Cassia had barely taken a step inside before Aster said, "Touch me."
He quickly realized that she took that in a different context, by the way her eyes widened. "Right now?"
"No- I mean, I need to show you something." He gave an involuntary shiver. Cassia grimaced and sat down on the toilet seat. "Let me dry you off first."
She finished what Molly had started. Having Cassia so close to him was a definitively different experience, because when Cassia touched him she felt what he felt. He saw it in the way she dapped at him with the scrunched-up towel, as if afraid to get too close.
When her fingers grazed the side of his neck he got wind of her thoughts. It was only a second's thought, but it was so intense that he knew what she was thinking of: sex. Their sex. Aster had always wondered how the woman in his arms felt during intercourse, but the experience was normally too subjective to try to understand. Now he felt it: it was a euphoric pleasure like his, the way he'd lit up her insides, but there was something else, something more emotional. Cassia leaned him forward to towel off his back and he could see the bedsprings creaking, her fingers grasping wildly as her mind burst with the intensity of penetration.
He felt his penis hardening. When Cassia leaned back, she noticed. She glanced down at her chest, as if looking for an explanation. "Did I do something?"
Aster looked away. She put a finger on his chin and turned his head towards her. "We're mates, aren't we? You're allowed think of me like that."
She said it like a question. Aster always had the suspicion that Cassia was thinking of Molly when they discussed their relationship. He ignored that part for the moment.
Instead, he gave her a shy smile. "Do you ever… think of me that way?"
Now Cassia averted her eyes. "I guess I…" she chuckled nervously. "We're not very good at discussing these things, are we?"
Aster glanced down at his erection. "Maybe that's why they put us together."
Cassia set down the towel at the edge of the sink. "Do you want me to… finish you off?" She said the last words in Late English. He wasn't sure if the lingo was correct but he got the gist.
"You don't have to."
Cassia smiled. Perhaps she couldn't deal with emotional conversations, but a challenge was just up her alley. "I think I will." She got down on her hands and knees in front of him, and cupped his penis. She began to rub vigorously, following a quick rhythm.
Aster started to breathe hard. Cassia rubbed faster and faster, and soon he was bashing his head against the head rest, moaning. He felt himself slipping. Her hands were fast and tight, and he orgasmed, sparks flying behind his eyes. When it was over, they were both left panting. Cassia repositioned him, and grabbed a tissue to wipe the cum from his thighs.
She stayed kneeling on front of him, hands gripping the front of his armrests.
"Thank you," Aster said, leaning back against the headrest.
Cassia staggered up, rooting her legs apart. "I think I came a little," she said breathlessly. "I felt that. The whole thing."
"Bringing-together is neat sex trick, huh?" Aster said.
Cassia gave a shadow of a grin. "That's what it was made for." She draped a towel over his genitals and dug an arm under his thighs, scooping him into her arms. Her grasp was surprisingly tender, as she held him to her chest. "Let's get you dressed," she said.
In the bedroom, she set Aster down on the bed. She tugged a pair of underwear up his legs, and was getting started on the bleached jeans when Aster remembered something.
"Sit down," he said. He told Cassia to touch his shoulder, and then he played back the memory of his encounter with Dr. Moscowitz. When he got to the part where the Doctor threw him from his chair, Cassia flinched. She removed her hand a minute later.
"Quswák," she said. "He found us first."
"We had always intended on a direct confrontation," Aster said. "But maybe we should change our plans a bit."
"This is not good," Cassia said, squeezing the jeans between her palms. "I'm close to finding his lab, but I need more time. I've been trying to detect extraneous machinery or people underneath the strip mall, but my Q-band doesn't have enough power. Maybe if we combined-"
"You're forgetting something." Aster watched as Cassia shimmied the pants up his skinny thighs. "He took my Q-band." The Doctor wouldn't be able to use it since Q-bands were accessible only to their owners. Still, Aster had lost his most powerful weapon.
"True." Cassia paused, thinking.
"Maybe you can harness energy directly from my body," Aster said. "The way you did when we were first brought-together."
"That'll hurt, for you." Cassia took a a white undershirt from the dresser drawers. Molly had bought it as an undergarment, but neither he nor Cassia could tolerate the colors of the other overgarments.
"Bring me to work tomorrow," Aster said. He raised his head to allowed her to slip the undershirt over. "But we'll have to figure out how to mask the pain, so your co-workers won't be not suspicious."
"Maybe they'll think pain is just part of your condition." Cassia took his right arm, attempting to get it through the hole. "Oh, I have a good cover." She stopped to raise an eyebrow at him. "How do you feel about having your chest waxed?"
The next morning, in the few minutes before his first patients would arrive, Molly dubiously followed the Doctor into his office. She'd never actually been here before, but the place looked like the standard optometrist's clinic: pastel walls, older secretary behind a paneled desk, eye charts and posters in the waiting room. Dr. Moscowitz's office was sparse, with only a cluttered wooden desk and a few framed certificates on the walls.
Molly sank into the chair across him. A very familiar watch, lying flat across the desk, caught her eye.
"Isn't that Aster's?" She said.
The Doctor was arranging some papers slowly, like he had all the time in the world. "It is, actually. There's something I'd like to show you."
Molly felt anger rush forward. "You stole his watch? Why would you do that?"
Dr. Moscowitz set down his paper and scooted forward, clasping his hands on his desk. "Let me ask you something," he said. "How much do you actually know about this man, or the woman with him, for that matter?"
"Lots of things," Molly said. "But I want to know why you stole his watch."
"Did you ever feel any reason to doubt all those things he's told you?" The Doctor's demeanor hadn't changed. He was as pleasant as ever. "Perhaps, I don't know, because of recent events?"
She was not going to sit through this. Molly stood abruptly, almost knocking over her chair. "Look," she said, trying to sound as even as possible. "We appreciate your kindness in allowing Aster to use your equipment. But that didn't give you the right to butt into our business."
"We?" The Doctor said. "Our? Could it be that you are overlooking this man's faults for some other… more personal reason?"
Molly gripped her purse tightly. She was on the verge of letting her temper loose. "What do you want?"
"Sit down, sit down," the Doctor said, waving away her concern. "There's something I want to show you about your Aster, something that may come as a surprise to you."
Molly didn't have a chance to object as the Doctor grabbed her wrist and slapped on the watch. "Now, it's supposed to work on only Aster," he said, as his voice began to fade, "But the thing is so broken that I only had to tweak with…"
The room dipped and fell over. Molly was on the floor, suddenly, hitting it hard. Her mind was suddenly not her own and she screamed but couldn't make a sound because a hot, sweaty hand was clamped over her mouth and her eyes.
She saw so much. She saw the future. People, normal people but better, stronger, and trees shaped like lamps and buildings shaped like poles. A starry sky. Huts and a boy, and Cassia in a robe in a large hall. It was too much, yelling into her ears, trampling through her brain.
On the floor under the desk, she started to sob, the way a child sobs when the noise is too loud and there's too much going on and they just want to go to bed. She was aware of a presence behind her, strong comforting hands stroking her, murmuring in her ear. She held still until her heart stopped pounding. When she took in a deep breath she saw the morning sky of two hundred years ahead, and then it all went black.
Cassia strode across the park lot, Aster at her side with his new wheelchair, on his way to get waxed. She was self-conscious of Aster, and hated herself for it. It hadn't been this way. Until yesterday.
"My boyfriend requested to see where I work," she'd told Linda.
Linda, sitting with a customer at the first table, blew a bubble, and dunked the customer's hand in a bowl of warm water. "So bring him," she said. She began massaging the customer's hand vigorously. "You never mentioned you got a man. I need to see this."
"It's too hot," the customer, a woman in her seventies, complained.
"It'll cool down soon," Linda told her, and turned to Cassia, who was sitting with her legs folded behind her desk. "What's his name?"
Across the room, Sophie, one of the other workers, snorted. "Y'all got weird-ass names," she said. She took pale red polish from the shelf and shook it.
"What's he like?" Linda reached for the nail file, and began scraping over the old woman's nails. "Watch the cuticles," the woman warned.
"He is... nice," Cassia said. Even in Rhodium, she hated when people asked her about Aster. It was something private, their relationship. And it was no one's business.
"Sounds like true love to me," Sophie said, taking a seat at the second table. Across from her, her customer was talking on her cellular phone in Spanish, one hand on the table, ready to be treated.
"Maybe he'll be useful and help us move the waxing table in room one," Mila said, coming into the main room and joining the conversation. "Mr. Lee said it's gotta be done by Friday. And I was like, 'what do we look like, movers?' And he was like, 'I don't give a damn, do I?"
"Sounds good?" Linda said to Cassia. "Your man gonna help us?"
Cassia glanced down at the desk. She sitting with her back erect, and the other workers often joked that she sat like she was on trial. "I do not believe that he will."
"Why? Is he soft?" Mila came to rest on Cassia's desk. "Cuz I once dated a guy who was like, five five or something. Couldn't carry shit. I had to carry all his boxes when he moved out."
"No," Cassia said. "He is paralyzed."
"Your boyfriend's in a wheelchair?" Linda said. She applied her first coat of pink polish to the woman's thumb. "But he can move his arms, right? He can still help."
"No," Cassia said. "He cannot move anything."
Mila whistled. Even Sophie's chatty customer paused for a second.
"Do you have to like, push him around and shit?" Sophie said, rubbing oil into her customer's fingers.
Mila leaned over the desk. "Can you guys have sex?" She asked.
"Oh, leave the poor girl alone," Linda's customer snapped. She blew on her newly painted fingers. "I think you're wonderful, honey, for staying with a man like that. It's not something all of us could do."
No one really added anything to that, and the conversation soon switched to the loud-ass construction on the next lot and how it was making Sophie deaf.
But Cassia had been stuck on the old woman's comment for the rest of the day. She'd never thought of Aster as someone to pity, probably because she'd been so focused on the fact that she'd made him the way he was.
Cassia blinked. They'd arrived at the sidewalk. Ahead of them,the nail salon's storefront glittered with Proto-Mandarin lettering, and a sign in the window blinked 'open' in neon lights. "Yes," she said.
"I took the liberty of researching contemporary curses," Aster said, rolling up the slopes part of the concrete. They'd decided to speak Late English as much as possible in public. They attracted enough attention as it was. "To know what I should yell."
"You could have asked me," Cassia said. She held open the door for Aster and he rolled past her, doing his mouth movements on the straw.
The workers looked up. Aster surveyed the small salon with a sweeping glance, though there wasn't much to see. Cassia hoped he'd have enough room, between her desk and the tables, to get to the waxing rooms.
Mila came up to them. "So you're Aster?" She said loudly, beaming. "It's so nice to meet you."
Aster responsed politely. Cassia's eyes couldn't stop roving, trying to figure out what everyone was thinking, how they were going to react to Aster. The two customers in the salon averted their eyes. Sophie glanced up quickly, gave a vague smile, and turned back to the polish brush in her hand.
Linda greeted them at the door to the waxing room. Cassia had told her that Aster wanted to get his chest waxed, just to try something new, and Sophie had volunteered to do it. She waited while Aster moved across the floor slowly, Cassia one step ahead of him, clearing chairs and the broom and someone's coat out of the way.
"Come on in." Linda towered over Aster, and bent down a little when she spoke to him. "I've heard so much about you," she said, to which Aster raised an eyebrow.
He couldn't fit through the door. It wasn't that the entryway was too narrow, but there was a wall right next to them, and the wheelchair couldn't make the tight turn.
Linda was trying it stand out of the way, further down the hall, and she saw that it wasn't working. "I don't think there's anywhere else we can do this,"she said apologetically.
Cassia met Aster's eyes. She broke her own rule by speaking in Menghish. "I'm gonna have to carry you into here," she said.
Aster said nothing, just watched as she undid the strap across his chest and legs, and leaned down to lift him. "Are you okay?" She said into his ear.
"Just get it over with," Aster mumbled. She lifted him off his seat and carried him into waxing room one, where she lay him down on the blue-covered foam strip. Then she pushed his wheelchair down the hall, out of the way.
Linda entered the room, looking plainly uncomfortable. She addressed herself to Cassia now. "You have to... He has to get his shirt off. He can just open the front."
Cassia nodded, and went to unbutton Aster's shirt. It was at times like this that she wished either of them were friendly people. But they weren't. Aster just stared at the ceiling. She lifted the two flaps of his shirt open, revealing a sunken chest snaked with wires.
Cassia and Aster had decided to not even come up with an explanation. They had gambled that Linda wouldn't ask, and she didn't. They didn't ask, either, if Cassia could stay in the room, which was necessary if she wanted this to work. Linda didn't try to kick her out.
"Ever did this before?" Linda said, getting the wax ready.
"No," Aster said. "But I've been told it doesn't hurt in the least."
Linda opened her mouth, then grinned. "Sure." She stood over him, and Cassia sat near his head. They'd discussed the various way they could be touching without seeming strange, and in the end opted for something simple: before the second piece of wax was applied, Cassia would brush back Aster's hair, touching him on the temples. When Sophie would pull back the wax, Cassia would activate her Q-band's search function.
"You want completely bare?" Linda asked.
"Yes," Cassia answered.
Aster scoffed. "You will be next," he said. "And I will take pleasure in your pain."
Linda slathered the hot, gooey liquid above Aster's nipples. She applied what looked like a piece of paper on top. Then she ripped.
"Jesus!" Aster said. It didn't sound convincing, as he was too nervous. Linda applied more wax. Cassia's fingers brushed her mate's hair, and with a mental directive to her Q-band, she plunged.
Reconnecting to earth was comforting and at the same time dizzying. The sense was weak until Aster's energy flooded her, and then she was filled with a firm sense of where she was and what was below her.
The lab was definitely there. She felt a single floor of small rooms surrounding an arena, what felt like an operating room.
"You okay?" Linda said to her. "You look kinda pale."
"I'm fine," Cassia said. She couldn't help but smile. On the table, Aster's eyes were closed, and she felt a pang. Her fingers traveled back into his white locks, where she brushed through to his scalp. His face was pale. Linda ripped off the next strip.
"Done!" She announced. She seemed relieved. "I'll see you guys in the next room."
Cassia buttoned up Aster's shirt, being careful when she saw him flinch. "What did you see?" He said. His voice was low.
"It's there," Cassia said. "I knew it." She did up the last button. "Was it bad?"
"Nah, I'm okay," Aster said. Cassia nodded, and leaned over to lift him up. The other workers might have thought her mate was weak. But she knew he wasn't.
Aster rolled down the sidewalk beside Cassia, each lost in their own thoughts. There was one thing about his confrontation with Dr. Moscowitz that they hadn't discussed.
"I'm talking about the other creatures," he'd said. "The ones with your intelligence, your temperament and mechanical nerve system, but without the health issues."
His entire life, Aster had thought he was the only one. The only Robot Man, the only human living half organically, half mechanically. Now the Doctor claimed that there were more. But who? And how did he know?
They arrived at Molly's home. Cassia unlocked the door with key that Molly left under the mat, and allowed Aster to slide through. He had trouble every time because of the bump at the threshold, and this time it irritated him even more.
He waited while Cassia swiveled away his sip and puff controls and unbuckled him, unzipping his blue fleece jacket. It was Samuel's jacket, and had been a little tight on him originally. Now there was nothing strong in his chest for the jacket to press against.
There was a moan from behind them, coming from a lump on the couch. Cassia froze, one arm holding Aster's, sliding him out of the sleeve. "Is that-"
They both recognized the voice. Cassia hurried her movements and rushed over to the couch, where the lumpy white pile was, in fact, Molly. At least, she was underneath it. Aster followed close behind his mate. Molly's face was blotchy red, and her eyes were half-lidded. A trail of drool crept from the corner of her mouth, seeping onto the leather of the couch beneath her.
Cassia knelt down. "Molly?" She said tentatively.
Molly raised her head a centimeter, and dropped it. "You don't care about me," she slurred. "I saw you. I saw all of you."
Cassia frowned, turning to Aster. "What is she talking about?"
"I have no idea," Aster said, but when Molly opened an eye a crack to look at him, his pulse quickened.
Cassia went to get Molly a cup of water. Aster moved his chair forward, as close to the sofa as he could get. He was blocked by the tangled blankets spilling onto the floor.
He cleared his throat. Molly continued to regard him with one eye, disconcertingly. Her wheezy breathing filled up the room.
"Are you… sick?" Aster said.
"Take a guess, dumbass." Molly coughed. "You liar. You're a fucking liar."
Cassia returned. She set down the water on the coffee table. "It is much too hot in here," she announced in Late English, peeling off three-quarters of Molly's covers. Then she stood back, hands on her hips. "Sit up,” she said.
With a groan, Molly pulled herself into an upright position. She clutched her forehead. "I'm gonna hurl. Oh, god. Oh, god."
"You will not," Cassia commanded, shoving the water at her. "You will drink this."
"There is advih in her purse," Aster said, watching Molly take slow sips. Luckily, the little black handbag was right at their feet. Cassia rooted through it, not asking how Aster knew about the medication, and pulled out a little plastic bottle.
"I gave you those," Molly said. Her voice was less raspy now. "Remember? And you… you don't care about me. You don't give a shit about me."
"Molly, I do not..." Aster swallowed. "I do not comprehend-"
"Oh, you fucking comprehend." Molly set down the water. Her strength seems to be returning, and she lifted her head off the back of the couch. "All this time, I cared for you. I gave you my house and clothes and a job, I fucking washed you and fed you and you-" she choked, a sob caught in her throat.
Aster sneaked a glance at his mate. Even she was frozen in place.
"You love her," Molly spat, her already watery eyes spilling over.
"What?" Cassia said.
Molly raised a shaking hand from under the blanket. There, wrapped the around her wrist, was a slim, shimmery band.
Reckless Behavior: A Guide to the Early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Two: Children
…since child-bearing is an enormous undertaking, the dynamics between men and women is still decidedly uneven, for the simple biological reason that women take time to bear a child, and further nurture them as anewborn and then as a young child. Even after lab births became common, and were approved as a safe choice, women continued to conceive naturally. Aside from the genetic modifications that became the standard, that is.
The one thing that remained constant throughout history were the attempts to circumvent the genetic modification standards, thereby enhancing one's child beyond the legal limit. One such recent example would be Aster Astragalus, who was created with illegal genetic enhancements, and further altered by introducing mechanical systems as life support. His case garnered much controversy in…
The entire twisted story spilled out of Molly, Dr. Moscowitz cornering her, showing her the band. Aster kept asking what she'd seen, and she was barely able to get the words out. The obvious thing was that she'd seen enough. And that wasn't even what was distressing her the most.
"I don't know, I just thought…" Molly sniffled, crumpling a tissue between her fingers. "I don't know, that we had something, Aster. You and me."
"Why would you think that?" Cassia was on the edge of her chair, and barely able to keep her voice level.
"Cassia," Aster said. "Please." He turned to Molly. "I apologize. I did not know you were under that impression."
"Give me a break!" Molly's face was pale,bit her eyes were alive. "At the beginning, when you arrived? Admit it. You liked me. I mean, you… when we kissed, you didn't pull away."
When Aster said nothing, she shrugged. "And now, with your paralysis, you let me take care of you. I just thought…" This seemed to invite a fresh batch of tears. Aster seemed stricken, regarding her with a mixture of pity and wonder.
Cassia's patience was nearing its end. She shot up. "Are you insane?" She said. "You think my mate allowed you to care for him because he 'has feelings' for you?" Her teeth were bared in disgust. "You think he likes it?"
Aster sighed. "Cassia, let me-"
"Well, it's not like I was getting any warm signals between the two of you!" Molly shot back. "You don't talk or act like a couple. You're like a fucking robot, Aster."
Cassia's heart dropped. Aster opened his mouth, then closed it. Molly was oblivious, fixing them both with angry stares.
Finally, Aster swiveled slowly to face his mate. There were dark circles under his eyes. "I think I should talk to her alone for a while," he said quietly in Menghish. "She's hysterical. I've never seen her like this. I'm gonna try to calm her down."
Cassia found herself nodding. "Yeah, that, um, that makes sense. I'll... I'll go."
She decided to make herself useful, and went to the kitchen to make soup. She gathered the vegetables and utensils necessary, and dumped them on the table. Having the room to herself wasn't very helpful, though, since she could hear the entire conversation from there. Aster's voice was soft and soothing. She took the first zucchini from the pile and started to peel it.
"So you came through a…what again?" Molly asked.
"A wormhole," Aster said, infinitely patient. "The procedure is called quantum tunneling. We simply enlarged a microscopic wormhole, propped the mouth open with exotic matter, and passed through to your century."
Molly was silent for a moment. Cassia peeled intently, furiously. The pile of green skins on the table grew.
"Okay, but what… Oh my God. I'm sorry, I just… it's so hard to digest all this."
"I can imagine. You must know that Cassia and I feel terrible that you became involved in… in us. In our mission."
Molly yawned. By the time Cassia had blended the zucchini and squash and mixed them with fried onions and mushrooms, it was quiet in the living room. Aster didn't come into the kitchen until a few minutes later.
"She's asleep," he said in Menghish.
Cassia didn't turn from the stove. "Do you want soup?"
"Yes. Thank you."
Feeding Aster was probably one the most difficult things about his care, only because she knew how much he hated it. Cassia brought a ceramic bowl, filled to the top with chunky orange soup, to the table for them to share. Aster was waiting with a mild expression on his face. She raised the spoon to her lips, tasting the soup, and then offered some to her mate.
They ate in silence. So this was how it was going to be. Silent between them. Cassia fed Aster another spoon, and a trail of liquid dribbled down his chin, reaching his shirt. Cassia grabbed a napkin to wipe up the spill.
He chuckled nervously, watching her hand. "Sorry."
Cassia set down the spoon. "Aster, I told you, you don't have to apologize every time-"
She stopped, feeling like she couldn't continue anymore. He was looking at her almost guiltily.
Molly had said that Aster loved her, his mate. How did she know that? What had the Q-band showed her?
"You know what," Aster said. "I think we should talk about what Molly saw."
Cassia bit her lip. "Okay," she said.
∆∆To be continued…