Reckless Behavior: Chapter Seven
The 76th floor walkway between the Sciences and Administrative buildings is crowded with students, chatting, yelling things to kids on other suspension paths, or simply lost in their stored memories. The rain falling hisses when it meets the air umbrella framing the walkway, but the sun still beams gaily at me. It doesn't realize how nervous I am.
"Hey, Cassia!" A student palms his forehead, pronouncing my name in the deference pronunciation used for professors. I raise a hand to my head, and he ducks his head shyly. I wonder if he realizes that I'm only a couple of years older than him.
Really, why should I be nervous? I've been teaching at this university for three years, and Commitee knows that I know my stuff. I've done my research here. There's no reason for my nails pressing into my palms.
I hurry to the door of the Administrative building, where the unique hairs in my ear canal are scanned, and I'm buzzed into the conference floor. The Committee is waiting near the reddish shrubs on my left when I come in. A magnetic chair floats, nearly hidden by tall grass, and I take a seat. The committee members don't even pretend to continue their conversation, they just wait in silence. The president of the University, Buchloe, brings up a screen for everyone, and she puts a soundproof glass wall around our circle of chairs. This meeting is in session. Now the airful garden just seems stuffy.
Aster would hate how fake everything up here is- when we got home to my cube he would say, 'Real grass doesn't crunch,' or 'They're blending three ecosystems in one conference room. Pretty ignorant for a university campus.' I would say something back, something to tick him off, and we'd bicker and then make out. I don't know why, but it's always like that.
I get him out of my head. Now is not the time for blushing, especially with nine bored faces looking me over. It's the white top hat they don't like, I think. This is not my day.
"So, I believe you've made your final decision?" Buchloe says. I'm supposed to speak first, but everyone is cranky because we're missing our lunch break.
"Of course," I say. My Q-band's data has already been private-dumped onto the screen in front of me. The file I send them has no visuals or auditory, just letters. I skim over the main points even though no one is listening- they're reading and rereading, because they think their eyes are deceiving them.
"The partner I've chosen to accompany me for this mission is Aster, Astragalus Town." I weave my fingers together and keep a straight face. The vice president smiles at me, but the rest just exchange glances and cough.
A co-worker of mine, the cocky, young student-elected member of the committee, raises a finger. She brushes a curly white strand from her brown-rimmed eyes. "Are we talking about the robot man? That guy they built from almost scratch?"
"He's her mate," The head of the Finance department mutters under a sculpted mustache, hoping to be loud enough for only her to hear.
"You got him as a mate?" the student-elect finds this delightful. "We always said you were made of stone, Cassia. It makes sense, doesn't it?"
"Excuse me!" Buchloe glares at us. At this point, she's one hundred and twenty-four years old, and has been president for less than half of that. She's tired of us, and probably tired of living too. "It may lunch hour, but this is not the gossip garden."
The committee members look at their laps. Student-elect is still grinning at me.
"I think we're all forgetting," Buchloe continues, giving student-elect a death glare, "That Aster of Astragalus was not on the list of potential partners. That is the crux of the matter here."
This is exactly how I was expecting the conversation to go. I sit up straighter in my seat. "Yes, but-"
"No but. No exceptions. You understand how this works, right?" Buchloe brings up a visual of the human body on our screens. "The list of candidates we gave you is a list of all the humans alive today that would withstand quantum tunneling. We took into account heart strength, mental strength, including dopamine regulation in the brain, and emotional stamina. Croton was one of those people. How many others were there?"
I am composed, but inside she's making me feel the way I make students feel when they give a wrong answer. "Six," I mumble.
"Six," she repeats, satisfied. "Six out of a population of five billion on the home planet. Your, uh, mate was not one of them."
She says 'mate' like 'little friend.' As if what Aster and I have is pretend. Child-play.
"Aster will be able to withstand quantum tunneling," I say, quickly, before I lose my nerve. "His body is programmable."
The whispering stops because this just got good.
"Programmable?" Buchloe leans forward.
"If only I could program my mate," Department of Sciences says wistfully. Department of Engineering kicks him in the shin.
"Yes," I say. I squirm, and they all watch me squirm, capitalizing on this crack in my demeanor. I squirm because I am uncomfortable. They would all squirm, too, if their mate was the subject of ethics lectures for the past twenty-five years. To hear that the Robot Man is programmable- to hear it said aloud, and from his mate, no less- is precious. This moment is definitely going to the Committee members' stored memories.
Rhodium Uni gives these sorts of lectures all the time. Just last week I passed by a couple of Ethics majors discussing my mate with gusto, and I couldn't resist- I looked up the lecture. Sure enough, Aster is up for discussion again. I didn't store the lecture, but the introduction is seared in my organic memory. If only there was some way to get rid of those.
Robot Man: Abborance, or the Future of Humanity?
No one could have predicted that the birth an ordinary child from a small East Coast town would spar decades of debate, bringing an age-old question back to the global eye. Yet here we are, and the question does not seem to have resolved itself in the least.
Aster, Astragalus Town, is unique among humans. Dying at birth from a botched DNA manipulation, he was fitted with a system to artificially sustain his organs, his growth, and all of his bodily systems. We don't know who created this system. We don't even know how it works. And we are left with more questions than ever before.
What does it mean to be truly human, if the neurons zipping through your brain are the product of an artificial construction? Is it moral to allow Aster to feel pain, when he has the option of removing the sensation? And does his consciousness stem from the organic parts of him, or from the artificial? Can we truly be certain he is conscious at all?
"Cassia Miami?" Buchloe says, making me blink away the glazed look I've probably taken on. She eyes the other members, then turns to me. "I understand your position, and indeed the political statement you are trying to make-"
"I'm sorry?" Now it's my turn to sound indignant. "This has nothing to do with politics. I choose Aster because I believe we will work well together. You can read his qualifications, right here."
Buchloe flicks away the resumé dismissively. " I just don't see how this would work."
I clear my throat. "The selection process believes we are fit to be partners. I don't see why-"
"The selection process thinks you are fit to be lovers," Buchloe says. There are titters. "Let's not get confused."
Aster tried to shift to the side of Croton/Andrew's couch so that their thighs weren't touching. "You're doing it again."
"What? Doing what?"
He shook his head, the sheer- well, the intensity of that memory hanging still before his eyes. "Your… your organic memories are spilling into me."
Cassia cursed and scooted to the far end of the couch. Her eyes fixated on the beer bottles that clustered on the side table, stubbornly avoiding his gaze. Aster tried to get her to look at him, but she didn't, so he poked her arm.
Now she looked. "What?" She said.
"You asked for me?" Aster said. "I thought that was Buchloe's idea."
"Do you really think now is the time?" Cassia said.
In the other room, there was a pop and a hiss as Andrew opened a carbonated beverage. "You guys drink diet?" He called.
"Yes," Cassia called back, though neither she nor Aster knew what 'diet' tasted like. Aster leaned back against the cushion. This entire situation was ridiculous. Cassia had decided just that morning that it was time to figure out if Andrew was really Croton. If so, she wanted to finally confront him.
They had more important things to worry about. For one thing, Croton was speeding up the study of genetics instead of slowing it, contrary to what they'd believed all along. And if this Andrew was really Croton, what kind of game was he playing? Aster and Cassia both had blatant Menghish accents, and even if not, the white hair gave them away.
"I say we just ask him directly," Aster had suggested on the way over to the man's dorm house.
"Are you crazy?" Cassia had said. "Expose ourselves like that? What if he isn't Croton, as you keep suggesting?"
"So he'll think we're nutjobs. Who cares?"
"Mohy is starting to suspect something. Maybe he will too. We have to be careful."
So here they were, dancing a little dance with Andrew. Cassia apparently had it all figured out. Aster was supposed to watch, playing the role of Cassia's brother. It was a disturbing role, to say the least.
He accepted the cup that Andrew offered him upon entering the room. Andrew's face was drawn, concerned. He took a seat in a ratty armchair across Cassia. "So what's up?"
Cassia sat up. "Oh, Andrew, you will not believe the events that have recently occured!"
Aster took a sip of the bubbly, sweet drink. This might actually be fun.
Chapter Nine: Careers
…like many other important decisions made in this time period, a career or career path is chosen in the late teens, when the individual must decide whether or not to go to college, and which college to study at. Although somewhat developed techniques for reading a person's assets and personality exist, they are often not employed in deciding a career. The choice may be made by intuition, desire for wealth or power, or influence from parents or friends.
Like the relationships of this time period, all careers are subject to fail. It was not until a century later that an individual could be certain of her employment and life partner.
"So-" Croton pinched the sides of his cup, causing a crackling sound. "You're saying I'm never going to see you again?"
Cassia shook her head, wearing a sad, droopy face that she'd never make for real. "It is not probable. I will take care of things in Buffalo, and then go back to Rhodium with my brother."
Croton didn't react when she mentioned the megacity. Didn't twitch his lip or widen his eyes. He slumped back. "Wow. So that's... Where is that? In Maine?"
"In that vicinity," Cassia said. She glanced over at her mate.
Aster was just staring at the man with open contempt, and probably not looking out for any subtle facial signals. He didn't even seem to be following the conversation. Cassia plowed on.
"I would, however, like to thank you. You have been so kind to me."
Croton licked his lips, scooting forward on the faded brown chair. "Look, I know we only met, like, a few days ago, but there's a connection, you know? I mean, you're so… hot. You're really cool and really hot."
Cassia cleared her throat. She felt Aster seething beside her. "We should be going," she said.
Croton nodded glumly, and stood up, taking her hands and pulling her up. "Don't leave yet," he said, and it took Cassia a moment before she realized that he was leaning in for a kiss. She tugged her hands free.
"Yes, I think it's time to go," Aster said, reaching over the back of the couch where his wheelchair hid. He rolled it around to beside him and started transfering.
"One last kiss," Croton/Andrew said earnestly. Now that he knew she was going, his shyness seemed to have dissapated. Cassia quite preferred him when he was timid.
Aster was still on the couch. Why was he taking so long to transfer?
"I think Aster needs some help," she said, leaving Andrew standing, not knowing what to do with his hands. She crouched down next to her mate. "What are you doing?" She hissed in Menghish.
"My arm is asleep," he whispered back.
Aster hesitated. Cassia craned her head to look up at Andrew. "Would you give us a moment to ourselves?"
"Uh, sure." He scurried into his bedroom.
Aster used his left arm to pick up his right wrist. His hand hung limply. "I don't know, this... This has been happening recently. It won't last long. Just give me a minute."
Cassia took his hand gently. The fingers didn't give. "You can't move this at all?"
Aster glared. "I said, just give me a- there." He made a slow fist, then a quick one, and shook out both hands. He moved into his chair and switched off the brakes.
Once outside on the sidewalk, Cassia took a closer look at her mate. He was definitely favoring the left side as he pumped his arms, watching the concrete for large cracks. She took his handlebars, and Aster let her take control of the chair without a struggle.
"He was nice," he said. She o ulsnt tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
"I guess." Cassia pushed Aster onto the shoulder of the road, where the sidewalk ended on JJ Audobon Street, towards Molly's house. "But he's not Croton."
"You don't have to stop seeing him, you know." Aster zipped up his jacket, and Cassia paused for a moment to do the same. Night was descending, and it was chilly.
Aster interpreted her stopping as shock. "I'm serious," he said. "While we're here, have some fun, you know?"
It was infuriating, talking to the back of his head. Cassia moved to his front, where she leaned down and gripped his his handrests. From this close she saw the creases under his eyes, the wires shaking out from under his collar. "You don't mean that, do you?"
Aster had never been as good as she was at hiding his emotions. Instead he swerved away, towards the road. "Of course not. But I don't want you to have me like this. Anyway, I… I let Molly into my bed. And it felt good. So you should have someone better. Someone who deserves you."
Cassia straightened. "It felt good?"
Aster looked up, and his eyes were pained. "It did. And Cassia, I hate myself for it, but she was just so needy. She's so alone. Her mate is horrible to her and slept with her only friend, and I just…"
Cassia went around to the back of the wheelchair without saying a word. It was so obvious what was happening here and she was an idiot for not seeing it.
Of course Aster wanted to have that woman in his bed. Cassia saw the way she treated him. She made him feel needed. She made him feel like a man.
And here she was, pushing his wheelchair, and Aster couldn't be without her help and he hated her for it.
It all made sense. Last year, just a few months after she'd met Aster, he'd fallen unconscious for a few days, something to do with his artificial nerves. And that had been the end of whatever they'd had together.
And they'd had something, definitely. Cassia's mother had always called it matefit, the feeling of this is meant to be, when you first meet your mate. And Cassia had felt it. She met Aster and everything she'd heard about him, from gossip or lectures or even the selection process, just melted away. He was… Aster. And he was perfect. She wasn't gushy about it and neither was he, but they both knew.
And after he fell unconscious, everything changed. He became distant. And it was right around then thay training for the mission started, so they never talked about it.
Aster put his hands on his wheels to stop her from pushing. He craned his neck around to look at her. "Are you… crying?"
Cassia kept moving forward, her knuckles white around his handlebsrs. Clumps of leaves obstructed their path as they began to pass shuttered pastel houses.
She squeezed her eyes shut. "No, but would it make you happy if I was? That no, I don't want Andrew, and no, I don't want you with Molly, either? Would it?"
"Cassia, stop and come here."
She kept moving. "I said it, okay? I always knew it and I think you do too, and you just-"
Her vision clouded through a rim of hot tears. Aster swiveled to face her, and she let him pull her onto his lap, and wrap his arms around her. His hand caressed the back of her neck, and she rested her chin on his shoulder, trying to breathe, trying not to cry. Cars sped by inches away, bringing a slap of cold air every time. She let Aster hold her for a few seconds, until she got her voice back, when she said, "You must be enjoying this."
"What do you mean?" His breath on her cheek sent a shoved down her spine. Cassia sat up. "This is why you don't want me to do the operation, isn't it? You're scared you'll fall unconscious. And you want to take care of me, not the other way around."
Aster took her hands, rubbing them. "That's true," he said. "But that's not why I don't what you to operate."
Cassia shook her head. "Aster, I'm your mate. I'm going to take care of you if anything happens, even you don't want me to. Even if you don't love me. It's just my job."
Aster took a deep breath. "I was never unconscious, actually."
Cassia almost lost her balance. "Yes you were. I was there. Remember? A few months ago?"
Aster put his hands on his find, hesitating. "I think I should show you something."
Molly's house lay down the street, a few minutes away. Neither of them wanted to go back there yet. Aster's thoughts and feelings, not quite concrete, were slowly seeping into Cassia, so she got up. Aster suggested they find a park, the one plentiful thing in Buffalo besides grassy lawns, and Cassia agreed. They found one after a torturous ten minutes.
Aster led them down a pebbled path. The park was deserted at this late hour, so they stopped by a bench, but Aster maneuvered around it and lowered himself onto the ground. He leaned back against the tree that presided over the bench, so he was hidden from two sides. Cassia dropped down beside him.
"Ready?" He said.
She wasn't, but she nodded anyway. He took her hand, and an image began to form in her head.
I'm flat on my back in my dwelling. The branches that form a tight hatching above me loosen, letting in jaggedy patches of sun. I hear Cassia's voice from outside.
She isn't supposed to be here. I remember talking to Albie about it last week.
When was it? He was in his leisure robe, so it must have been the 15th, the one day a month he's allowed to leave the Lab.
Albie was crouching over me, washing my hair. He was joking around, trying to keep the conversation light, pretending he wasn't cupping his brother's head in one hand, rinsing him with a washcloth with the other. The rest of my body was cold against the tiles of the wash basin.
"…and it was after that woman in my group had snuck in something heavy, because I don't know, she said it help her concentrate, and we'd all smoked it and Professor came in and said, 'Albanius Astragalus, why are you in such an upbeat mood?'"
"Ow, ow, Albie-" I blinked rapidly as the soap stung my left eye.
"Sorry." Albie's sleeves swung wildly, dripping with sudsy water, as he dunked the washcloth in the clean bucket and dabbed frantically at my eye. I thought about Rhodium, where Cassia said that washing was done by a system- you just lay there, or stood if you wanted, and let yourself be washed and cleaned by jets that were skin-temperature sensitive.
Too bad I live in town that doesn't believe in modern technology.
The spell had been broken. My younger brother dried me off with grim determination, his clumsiness giving away the fact that he couldn't wait to go. You would think that someone who devotes their life to the pursuit of knowledge would enjoy his day off. But no, he had classes booked all afternoon. Classes he was going to be late to, if he couldn't get me off the basin and into my bed fast enough. The branches opened up to help me dry faster, warming me in places that Albie was not interested in toweling off.
"Cassia sent me a message," he said. He lifted me, still naked and dripping, over to my bed. It had been raised to waist level to make lifting easier. "She wants to know why you're ignoring her."
"She messaged you?" My head lolled back, until Albie set me down gently. He spread my legs and adjusted me so that my bottom was right on top of the hole that I carved, while I was still able to use my hands. The opening goes straight onto the SmartSoil, which breaks down extrement and uses the useful parts as fertilizer. I bet Cassia's megacity toilets don't do that.
"She wants to visit," Albie said. "She's worried."
"You can't let her," I said. I wished he'd just cover me already. "This is just going to freak her out."
Albie pinches the bridge of his nose, sighing. "Come on, Aster."
He took care of me for two days and took a message, so now he's my mother? "She knows that you're… you know. Robot Man."
"I know," I snapped. "Just… don't let her come, okay?"
Now it's a week later. I'm still on that bed, the technicians still haven't fixed my nerves, and Cassia's outside. A cloud in my line of vision is lazily thinning into wisps.
"Why can't I come in?" She says, sounding utterly affronted.
My eyes are fixated on the sky above, but I can picture the scene beside me. Albie is resting a hand on the top of the doorway, trying to intimidate her. His sleeve rides all the way down, revealing a skinny arm. Cassia is not impressed.
"He's my mate," Cassia growls, "And I am going to see him."
"But he's unconscious," Albie says. He sounds nervous. Cassia is probably going all buggy-eyed on him. I can't see my brother's face but I know he's trying hard not curl up into a ball under Cassia's death glare.
Wait, I'm unconscious?
"He won't hear what you're saying," Albie says, lying badly, but Cassia believes him. She still pushes past him and rushes up to me.
Here's the part of the ruse Albie hasn't thought through. My eyes are open, and I can't close them. It's a new thing since yesterday, after I stopped being able to speak.
Her face comes into view, and it's a guarded face, approaching a foreign object. Her hair is slicked back into order, the way she wears it when she's teaching.
"Oh." Her lips part. "Albanius, his eyes are open."
"He can't see anything, Cassia."
"I know, but it's so… it's scary. I feel like he can see me."
Oh, please don't close my eyes. Please, Albie.
"Cassia, I think you should go. His body needs rest." Albie gets closer. He pushes my eyelids down, one at a time. Like I'm dead. My world is submerged in darkness.
His brilliant tactics don't seem to be working. I can't hear anyone leaving.
"Quswàk," Cassia whispers. I've never heard her in anything but that strong, confident voice of hers, one that's a little lower than other girls but is the sexiest thing I've ever heard.
I hope she doesn't come any closer. The square of cloth covering my penis under the blanket is damp, and Albie is supposed to change it. I hear crunching outside, and I'm pretty sure he's just left.
My weight shifts as Cassia clambers up onto my bed. I feel her nestle down beside me, but then she moves up, moves away. She must have smelled the urine. Every part of me is screaming out, screaming so silently. I hear her steps receding, then approaching, and I'm just staring into nothingness, when I feel a chill on the lower half of my body.
Cassia's lifted up my blanket. She's never seen me naked before, not in broad daylight. We had sex in the dark, that first time, because I said I liked it that way, and truthfully I do. But I also didn't want her to see me.
I want her to narrate her thoughts aloud, but she doesn't, just holds up that blanket, seeing all the wires streaking across every part of me. The ones near my hear pulse more noticeably than the others, and that's where she puts her hand, feeling the electricity. My penis is suddenly exposed, and she carries the wet cloth away and I hear the chug of the decomposer. She replaces it with a new one, then gently pulls the blanket back up to my chin.
Somehow I thought she would talk. Humans are sentimental creatures- even with most of us being secular, it's not uncommon for people to confide in their mother's ashes. But Cassia doesn't say a word. I'm almost expecting her to leave, but a moment later she sits down on the other side of me, where there is more room on the bed. Her shoes clatter to the ground, and she slides under the blanket with me. Her hand caresses my belly, and my penis stirs. It's the one thing that hasn't deserted me, of all things.
I can feel her body warmth, smell the university-standard cleanser in her hair. Her head must be close to mine.
"Why did I end up with this?" Her breath is warm in my ear. I lie motionless and it's killing me. I wish she would open my eyes so I can see her again,. It she doesn't, just lies there and traces circles on my chest, rubs me over and over, until Albie returns that night.
As evening fell, there was silence in the office for about an hour. Samuel broke it.
"Are we going to add racial preferences to the website?" He asked, squinting at the screen.
Molly blinked. "I'm sorry, what?"
Samuel yawned, leaning back with a creak. It was a deep purple color outside, the perfect dusk, and there was a light on the edge of the parking lot that flickered erratically. Samuel pulled the blinds shut. "Yeah, maybe we should wrap it up for today."
"Okay. Let's just finish with the website updates." She dragged her chair over to his desk. Samuel pointed to the space between question four (how messy are you?) and question five (how important is politics to you?).
"I was discussing it with Aster earlier," he said. He placed a hand on Molly's knee, rubbing absentmindedly. " We could put the question here. Or not. I mean, adding the questionnaire to the site was definitely the right move, but I don't know if we should get too specific."
"Asking about physical preferences is pretty specific for our demographic," Molly agreed. She watched his hand, the hairy knuckles and the big-faced watch she'd bought for him last year. "I know dating sites do that, and if we get too much like that it's going to blur the lines. People like the element of mystery with speed dating."
She had the urge to bounce her knee, but his hand was still there. It was like a cramp, keeping her leg still. But Samuel kept rubbing.
"True. And Aster said-" Samuel frowned, turning around. Molly quicky crossed her legs and scooted back. She didn't know why she felt so uncomfortable. They were together now, right? The past few weeks had been super busy, but Samuel had every right to stroke her. In fact, she could stroke him back, if she wanted to.
"Where do he go?" He said.
Molly laughed. Her fingers hovered over the back of his neck, until she snatched them away. "He left an hour and a half ago with his girlfriend. Where have you been?"
Samuel chuckled, shaking his head. "Focused, I guess. Hey. Those two still living with you?"
"Yeah. They haven't really gotten a place yet." Molly finally begins to pat Samuel on the arm. He gave her a funny look, and she pulled back, sighing. She just wasn't feeling it.
"You know they're taking advantage of you," Samuel said, but he didn't sound all too worried. He stood up and stretched, beginning to put his desk in order. Since Cassia had shown up, his grudge about Molly kissing Aster seemed to have melted away. After all, it's not like she could do anything more, with Aster's girlfriend nowliving with them.
"I know," Molly said. The truth was, she didn't want them to leave. More specifically, she didn't want Aster to leave.
Something dawned on her on the ride home. She always thought clearer in the car, because she didn't put on any music on the way back from work. It was at this time every day that her thoughts would creep up on her, like gremlins picking at her brain, telling her things she didn't want to hear.
So she did something she hadn't done in a long time: she called Jenn Collins. She steered with one hand, and with other, turned on her phone. White light flooded her face. The number was still on her speed dial.
The gremlins in her head started to pound. Jenn had slept with Samuel, and besides, it was just weird to call after so long. Molly's heart stopped between the last ring and the call connecting, as Jenn picked up. She put her phone on speaker and dropped it onto the passenger seat, facing up.
Loud, fuzzy music pumped in the background, along with the sound of people cheering someone on, or booing maybe.
"Hello?" Jenn's voice was clear and nasaly, exactly how she remembered it.
"Hi, this is Molly," she said. The music receded as Jenn stepped out or went to a quiet corner.
"I know," Jenn said. "Molly, I- I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say. It's been so long that-"
"I'm not mad, Jenn, well- not anymore. Anyway. I need your help, and I just don't know who to ask."
She didn't even ask Jenn about her life or catch up at all. Maybe that's how desperate Molly was.
"Sure. Go ahead." Jenn sounded eager to help. "Hey, you still dating Sam?"
"Yeah, it's... sort of about that." Molly's eyes were trained far ahead, and the headlights that sped by were just a blur. It was hypnotic. She tried to let the words flow.
"I think I'm..." She swallowed. "I think I'm falling in love with somebody, somebody already taken, and I don't know how to make it stop."
∆∆ To be Continued…