"No, scroll lower down," Aster said, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.
"Chill up," Cassia said in Late English. She was becoming annoyingly proficient in the local slang, thanks to Molly, and she liked to try out the words on him.
The two of them were seated at the living room computer, looking through the hidden file Aster had made. Well, Cassia was looking through it. Aster sat beside her, slumped in his chair, feeling useless. "The page only moves in two directions," he said. "Up and down."
"I know that," his mate said. She stopped waving the mouse from side to side.
The title of his secret folder was 'photos of small felines.' He and Cassia had come to the realization that their Q-bands were not be relied upon for holding information, since they worked only occasionally, at best, in this century. The next best pool of information, then, was the internet. The folder was a scrapbook of sorts, all the information they'd collected so far. Cassia scrolled down the black-on-white, endless article. It was the blog of a science enthusiast named George Chen, and the article itself was boring. The only item of interest was one of the footnotes, footnote : Moscowitz, 2002. That's all it said.
Cassia eyes were glazed over. "I've been thinking. I probably got too close to the lateral corticospinal tract, when I should have hit the area on top. I did the same thing in training, once. Your entire cerebral cortex is very-"
"Stop already." Aster kept his eyes trained on the screen. "Just stop… thinking about it. What's done is done. Anyway, you did some good. I'm not incontinent anymore and I think I can breathe better."
Cassia huffed. "As if that helps." She was right. All it meant was that instead of peeing himself and having to be changed, Aster had to ask Cassia to bring him to the toilet. He didn't know which of the two was more degrading.
Cassia wasn't looking at the screen anymore. She was looking at him. "I never should have touched you. I'm not a brain surgeon."
"Focus, please?" Aster nodded at the footnote, which was highlighted in blue. "Here, look. This is the earliest reference I could find on Croton. We'd previously thought he'd arrived at the end of the first decade, 2009 or maybe 10, but clearly, he's been here a lot earlier."
"You know what this means." Cassia clicked the link. It led to a 'Page not Found,' a white screen. "Dr. Moskowitz, Molly's Dr. Moskowitz, is probably the man we're looking for."
"I want to say that, but he has no background in genetics, as far is I was able to find out," Aster said. "He's been an optician for thirty years."
"Could be a cover."
Aster looked up at the clock. "Don't you have to go to work?" He was referencing the strip mall nail shop, where Cassia thought Croton's genetics lab might be. "You said it was a long walk."
Cassia glanced at the time on the corner of the screen. "Yeah… but I'm not going. I'm gonna stay here with you."
"Well, I am going to go to work, so no point of you staying."
"Are you serious?" Clearly she thought he was out of his mind. "Who'll carry you into the car? Molly? She's half your size."
"Yeah? Well who will feed you? What if you need the bathroom? You know I don't want Molly doing those things."
Aster didn't answer.
Cassia stood up. She turned Aster's wheelchair so he was facing the middle of the room. "I thought we discussed this," she said.
"Molly offered," Aster said. "She wants to help."
Cassia rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Because she's in love with you."
Aster blanched. "What?"
Cassia's eyes were shining in anger. "Come on. You two were bed together. You can tell me you love me all you want, and maybe it's true, but she isn't over you. She's like a puppy following you around."
Aster's mouth was agape. There was so much wrong with what he was hearing that he didn't know where to start.
"A minute ago you were apologizing for paralyzing me," he said. He don't have his body, only his voice to convey the way he felt. His tone came out harsher than he intended.
Cassia blinked and crossed her arms. "Now," his voice took on a hushed edge, "You won't let me be helped? You think I want her to do those things? You think I'm going to enjoy when she undresses me or shaves me or bathes me?"
Cassia set her jaw.
"You might want to get moving if you don't want to be late," Aster said.
Cassia glowered, standing up silently without turning him back to the screen. As she was about to leave the room, she stopped suddenly and turned around. "At least let me get you ready," she said.
He considered. "Fine," he said.
In the bathroom, they didn't talk. Cassia shaved his cheeks with the flimsy plastic razor Molly had bought. Aster hadn't bathed since two nights earlier, and none of the clothes here were antiperspirants. He knew he'd have to shower eventually. Cassia reached under his shirt, and lifting each arm, applied roll-on deodorant. The internet had told Samuel that quadriplegics don't sweat. Too bad Aster wasn't one of those.
Next, Cassia smoothed down his hair. His reflection remained hard and aloof, but truthfully, he enjoyed the sensation of her fingers raking through his hair. He gave an involuntary shiver, which Cassia pretended not to notice.
She seemed to be going through the motions in an order that could only be described as random. Since Aster wasn't talking and Cassia wasn't taking suggestions, she glanced down at the counter and chanced upon the toothbrush and toothpaste. Aster hadn't known how to use the brush when he'd first arrived, but luckily oral hygiene was one of the details Cassia had covered in her studies.
They would have no choice but to do this face-to-face. Cassia sat on the toilet seat and steered Aster towards her. She put a washbowl in his lap, and Aster opened his mouth. Cassia moved the brush across his teeth in circular motions, like the historical records claimed it was done. They stared at each other. Cassia gave him water to gargle and rince. She wiped the spit from his chin, and when he coughed she slapped his back, and continued like nothing happened.
If Aster let his vision relax he could pretend that the pretty woman across from him was an anonymous caregiver. She was just somebody, maybe somebody he would fantasize about sleeping with, and when he'd wake up in the morning wet from the thought of her tight breasts and long, flat torso, her face wouldn't be part of the image, because it would mean nothing to him. He would be able to enjoy when she wiped a bit of toothpaste from his lips with the back of her thumb, because there would be nothing more to it. Just a simple pleasure.
"You need to pee?" Cassia said.
His Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "Yeah."
Cassia lifted the toilet cover, dug her hands beneath his thighs and transferred him swiftly onto the seat. She did it so effortlessly. She had bend and keep one arm around him to keeping him from falling forward. Tilting one buttcheek off the seat she was able to tug his sweatpants down one hip, and then the other. His underwear- real underwear, for the first time in weeks- came down with it. Aster felt her cool fingers on his backside, then on his legs, spreading them apart, but didn't see them, since he was resting over her shoulder.
They waited a minute. Aster's bladder was full, pressing at him so hard that it hurt. Cassia's hug was starting to feel tired. "What is it?" She said.
"I just… can't."
Aster's face was aflame. This was definitely the worst part of his paralysis.
"Should I sing? Turn on the tap?" Singing had worked last night.
Releasing one hand, Cassia leaned over and turned the knob to full blast. The sink was old, so the water took a moment but then gushed out full blast, needles of icy water that created a spray.
Then Aster felt his mate's fingers drifting under his shirt. She pressed two fingers in underneath his belly. He gasped.
His urine hit the inside of the bowl with a hollow sound. He let out a silent sigh of relief. But once he started he couldn't stop, and he defecated as well. When he was finished Cassia scooted him forward and lowered his torso, so his chest rested against his knees, while she wiped him.
There was a rap at the door. "Aster? You in there?"
"Be out in a minute," Cassia managed. She pulled up his pants, lifted him back into his wheelchair, and flushed the toilet.
She lowered the seat again and sat down. Aster sneaked a glance at her and saw she was wide eyed, even sorrowful.
"Are you okay?" She said quietly.
"I don't think I can look at you right now." He said it, but didn't mean it to be cruel. The last few minutes had softened them both.
"I understand." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, drawing back when he recoiled.
"Have a good day at work," he mumbled.
"You too," she said, standing up.
"They're lying to you," Samuel said as soon as they were out back.
"What?" Molly said, stepping over a root. She resisted the urge to look back through the window, into her office. She felt bad leaving Aster alone in there.
"I spoke to Daniel," Samuel said, hands deep in his pockets, braced against the cold morning air. "You remember him, right? I think I introduced you guys at the Christmas party last year. He's the guy who just finished medical school. Anyway, he said that-"
"You talked to someone about Aster?" Now Molly's attention had been caught. She put her hands on her hips. "Sam! He specifically asked us not to do that kind of thing!"
Samuel put out a hand. "Just listen. I talked to Daniel and he said… well, that the stuff that Aster's told us about him, about his condition, are impossible." He paused to make sure she'd heard him. "Physically impossible."
"Oh my god. What does that even-"
"To begin with, it's not plausible that half of him was okay two days ago and now he's completely paralyzed. If he had been injured between that time, the shock to his body would be apparent."
"He has a condition," Molly mumbled.
"Bullshit and you know it. Daniel also said that in the state Aster's in, he should need a ventilator. He should need a pump to remove mucus from his chest, a trachea down his throat, and a catheter to pee through." Samuel raised an eyebrow. " And he should still be in diapers for his bowels."
"Sam!" God, he could be so insensitive. Her lip curled. "So what are you saying? He's lying?"
"Yeah. I am." Samuel glanced at a spot over her head, presumably he could see Aster.
"Well, is he moving in there?" Molly said.
Samuel shook his head. "No, but… Something's going on with him. It's just too strange."
Molly huffed and turned to go back into the office. She knew she needed a better comeback, but she had nothing. She went inside and sat down at her desk, without a word to Aster. He was waiting patiently at Samuel's desk, where the two had been charting out a projected net growth or something.
She took a piece of scrap cardboard from her desk and started tearing it into pieces. It was Dr. Moskowitz who'd been giving Samuel all these ideas. The Doctor was just curious, probably, just speaking his mind about an interesting situation, but it was more than that to Samuel. Sam was more than curious.
Unfortunately there was nothing Molly could do. She tore off a large bit of cardboard. They needed the Doctor's wheelchair and lift. She had to be courteous to him. In fact, he was coming over that evening.
"I do not suggest you rip that paper," Aster said.
"What do you care?" She said. His back was to her.
"I can hear you shredding a piece of cardboard," Aster said, "Which I believe has the new wifly password on it."
Molly stopped. "Damn you and your knowing everything," she said, keeping her voice light. "And it's 'wi-fi.' By the way."
Standing by the printer, Samuel snickered.
Reckless Behavior: A guide to the Early Twenty-first Century
Chapter Four: Connectivity
…called 'Internet,' which can be said to have revolutionized human communication in this era. What interests historians most about the early Twenty-first Century is that this period was the infancy of the global connectivity we experience today. Mobile telephones and laptops were an early step, followed by personal vehicles (cars), refrigerators, blackboards, thermostats and other devices that were connected to the Internet.
It was only later, in the mid-2000's, that traffic and later entire cities joined the Grid. The addition of entire ecosystems was a much later development, pioneered by the clean-tech movement originating out of Astragalus, a small, East-coast town…
Visualizing a three-dimensional structure was very difficult, but Cassia didn't trust her Q-band anymore. The longer it was disconnected from the Grid, the more buggy it got. The lasers were mostly shot, and the hologram feature created sparks when she tried to activate it. She was worried she'd burn down the house.
The only thing to do was visualize like the natives- on paper, with a graphite stick. A pencil. The last time she'd touched one of these was in the Traditional Art course she'd been forced to take in University. Before she'd left work that day, around two o'clock, she took a pencil and a few sheets of printing paper from her desk. Her memory was excellent, and she had no problem remembering the layout of the strip mall when she got to Molly's home. The problem was transmitting her memory onto a flat paper.
She was on the floor, cross-legged, contemplating this issue when the door swung open. Molly's flamboyant voice filled the doorway. "There's always that one person coming back, and it's like they never get the hint, you know?"
An animted sentence like that one would usually be accompanied by hand gestures, but Molly was pushing Aster's wheelchair. She tilted him back to ride over the step to her doorway, and when Aster had cleared the threshold he slumped forward.
"Is there not a way to discourage such individuals from joining?" He said.
Molly righted his shoulders. "Not really. No rules about joining as many dating events as you can. But I mean, this lady is infamous. Everyone knows her, everyone hates her, and she hasn't gotten a 'yes' for six months." Molly shrugged off her coat, dropping it on the shoe stand near the door. She kneeled down to undo the scarf around Aster's chest, to remove his coat.
Cassia stretched her legs, settings down the pencil. "I can do that," she said.
"I got it," Molly said. Cassia couldn't help but stare as Aster dropped forward, while Molly held him up with one hand and slid his arm out of his jacket with the other. Aster sat through it without a word. That's what Cassia loved and hated about him. He would never say a word about his suffering. That's why that morning had been so awful. He hated when Cassia saw him weak.
Sometimes she wished she didn't know him so well, the way Molly didn't. As the local slang went, ignorance is bliss. Molly joked with Aster and he joked back, like everything was okay.
Cassia stayed on the floor as Molly retied his scarf and smoothed down his hair, which had become staticky from the jacket's hood. Molly said something and Aster rolled his eyes, grinning. Cassia tried not to seethe. Instead she picked herself up and sat on his lap, kissing him on the lips. "Akkayit," she said brightly.
Aster regarded her strangely. "Hello," he said in Late English. "How was work?"
"Good." Cassia's hands cupped the back of his neck, an unnatural pose for her, but she pretended it wasn't. She lowered her voice. "Do you need to… Well, you've been waiting a whole day-"
His emotions rushed through her hands and she dropped them, stung.
Aster cleared his throat. He exchanged a glance with Molly, but when Cassia glanced back, Molly had disappeared down the hall, into her bedroom. "She took care of that."
His thoughts, which Cassia still couldn't piece together, were still buzzing aorund her brain. She wished she knew how to rid them of this brought-together business. "Molly?" She asked, dumbly. Because who else?
"Yes." Before she paralyzed him, Aster would have shifted in his chair at slow-passing moments like this, but now he could only look away. "Cassia, she's very… good about it. She doesn't make me uncomfortable."
"She can't even lift you." Cassia dropped onto the couch.
"We figured out other ways," Aster said. "Also, I've made up my mind about certain things. Molly wants to be my primary carer."
Cassia leaned back, and snorted. "So?"
"So I agreed."
She shot forward.
"Hold on,” Aster said. "Before you say anything rash."
"Think about it," Aster said. "It's less work for you. She said you can do all the lifting and she'll do everything else. I think it's better this way."
Cassia shook her head. "I don't understand. Why would she even… offer? This is a job that's round the clock. People get payed to do it. Isn't this a little weird?"
"Maybe a little."
"She's obsessed with you."
Aster sighed in exasperation. "Enough with that already. Molly enjoys my company, and that's the only reason she lets us stay here. It's certainly not because she enjoys your company."
"Still," Cassia insisted. "You should have asked my opinion first."
"Yes," Aster said, lifting his chin in an attempted shrug. "But it isn't really your decision to make."
The only reason Aster was upbeat was Cassia.
Not in the way one would expect, in the sense that Cassia cheered him up. Quite the opposite. His mate was in deep funk ever since she'd botched the operation, and since yesterday, when he'd told her that Molly would be his main caretaker, she was resentful too. She was scared of him. Regretful when she looked at him. When she was around, Aster made like he was okay.
It was times like this, when he was alone, that allowed him to wallow in despair. It was about time he was able to be furious. The stick he'd been using to poke at the keyboard had dropped into his lap twenty minutes ago. The screen had long since turned black, and was now playing a slideshow of overexposed grainy photos, Molly's summer vacation last year.
He closed his eyes. Sometimes, if he strained, he could get a sense of where Cassia was, thanks to the bringing-together that still held the two of them tethered. It was much harder when she was far away. Senses floated in and out, the smell of polish, dark and light faces, the ringing of a telephone… And the constant scoping-out that was Cassia, scrutinizing everything she saw, not letting a single sight slip under her nose. He tried to stay there, in her head, when he was thrown back into Molly's living room.
The doorbell was chiming.
"Tell him it's open," Molly's voice floated out of the shower.
Aster wasn't in the habit of yelling. He cleared his throat. "You may come in," he called.
A middle-aged man came into the living room. His cheeks were red from the cold. Aster knew him because he sometimes stood outside his office to smoke cigarettes, but now another connection was forming. He was the same man who-
Aster blanched. Dr. Moscowitz unwound his scarf, and strolled further into the room, until he was out of Aster's line of view.
"Hello," the Doctor said.
That voice. Aster's heart quickened. Until now, he'd blocked out the memory of that first morning, when he'd woken on the floor- pants wet- and this man had carried and washed him. This man who was Croton, or at least they were partly sure.
He felt a jerk backwards. The Doctor pulled out his wheelchair and turned it towards the middle of the room, facing the couch. He made a tsk-tsk sound.
"Well," he said kindly, "What happened to you?"
"Nothing has happened. This is simply due to a preexisting condition." Aster didn't break eye contact. "Molly will be present shortly."
Dr. Moskowitz's gaze lingered over him for a few more seconds, and then he nodded and sat down in the middle of the sofa, his legs fanned out in front of him. "Thanks, but I'm here for you, actually. I hear you're in need of new chair?"
"Molly did mention something to that effect," Aster said.
"It's in the car," said the Doctor. He reached out and took Aster's limp hand, tapping a finger against his Q-band. "You have a nice watch. Can I see it?"
"It was costly. I'd prefer not." As he said the words the Doctor was unbuckling the clasp and slipping off the Q-band, pocketing it. He scooted forward, bringing his face close to Aster's. His lips glittered, and although he had subtle folds around his eyelids, Aster realized that a person of this century would think this man was younger than his actual age. Dr. Moscowitz was not a Natural. It was obvious from this close up.
"Are you enjoying your visit here?" The Doctor said. Aster watched him with a certain calm, although his insides were clenched.
Dr. Moscowitz stood up, his movements slow and calculated. "I wonder if you've told Molly about where you come from. I'm sure she'd love to hear about Astragalus." He moved to the point that Aster could no longer see him. Aster's palms were sweaty. He felt fingers under his armpits, feeling for sosmthong, and then he felt the scarf holding him up begin to slacken. "I wonder what she'd say," the Doctor drawled. The scarf was slipping away, and Aster fell forward, into his own lap, with a grunt. His arms were raised and tossed over the sides of his armrests.
He lifted his chin up from between his knees. The Doctor was trying to intimidate him with brute force. It wasn't going to work. Aster could be a man of logic, if he so desired. It was much easier for him to switch off his panicky thoughts than it was for others. His body responded with goosebumps, but his head was clear. "She wouldn't believe me," he grunted. "I've got nothing to lose."
"Nothing to lose?" The Doctor grabbed him by the seat of his pants. Down the hall, the shower hissed loud enough to make Molly oblivious. Aster's breath stopped as his ass was lifted from his seat, and then in an instant he was flipped over onto the ground. The small of his back hit the ground first, and blood burst out onto his tongue. It dribbled out of his mouth and onto the prickles of his chin, onto the slated floor.
The Doctor grabbed his arm roughly and turned him onto his back, flopping him over like a doll. His two feet were spread, one on each side of Aster. "I don't think you understand the risks," he hissed, speaking in Menghish now. "You could ruin the whole timeline."
"Isn't that what you are attempting to do?" Aster said, sticking with Late English. His back throbbed. The Doctor was bent over him, breathing hot air in his face.
"For good reason. Creatures like you shouldn't exist."
Aster gathered everything in his mouth, all the blood and saliva, and spit in the Doctor's face. The logical part of him was somewhere in the background now.
"Are you scared of me?" He whispered, his voice low, lifting his head. It hammered, so he set it back down with a wince. "Are you scared of what would happen to standard Enhanced like you if there was more than one of me?"
For a second Dr. Moscowitz paused. He dabbed the spittle from his cheek, wiping it on his pants. He gathered himself and moved up to the couch, so he was directly above Aster. "I said creatures like you. Not you. You were a failure. What did they call you back home? Robot man?" He chuckled. "No, I'm talking about the other creatures, the ones with your intelligence, your temperament and mechanical nerve system, but without the, uh, health issues."
"You're mistaken," Aster said. "After I was born, the lab that made me was shut down. There are no more."
In the bathroom, the water ceased. The Doctor licked his finger and wiped Aster's lips, and lifted his upper lip and rubbed his teeth. Satisfied, he lifted Aster and laid him across the couch. His hands were rough, with long fingernails that dug into Aster's skin.
"Now," he said, wiping his hands on his pants, "I guess I'd better fetch you that wheelchair, huh?"
"No. I am not going to teach you how to wash him." Cassia rolled over so that she faced the red wall of the couch. She'd just gotten home from work, and had headed straight to the sofa to sulk. The one week of work in the nail salon that she'd gotten for herself was almost over, and she hadn't discovered anything related to Croton's lab. The supposed lab. And while she'd become grayer than Buffalo's sky these last few days, Molly was perky as ever. She seemed to love her new role as Aster's caretaker. And Aster… well, he faked his good mood pretty well.
"I've never done anything like this before," Molly insisted, hovering over the couch. "I mean, YouTube has a bunch of videos on quadriplegic care, but Aster's different than those guys."
Oh, if only she knew. Cassia rolled over, resting the side of her face on the padded armrest. "There is nothing to teach. You remove his garments and wash his hair and body."
Molly's hair was in a loose bun atop her head, since she'd just taken a shower herself. She raised an eyebrow. "You've never done it before, have you?"
Cassia shrugged. "Aster's brother was the one who… cared for him. Not I."
Molly nodded. She sat down on the nearby rolling desk chair. "This probably sucks for you, huh."
Cassia turned her head back the other way. She was not going to engage in a pity conversation with this woman. After a while, Molly huffed out a breath, stood up and said, "I can't do any of the lifting, you know that. You need to come help."
Dr. Moscowitz had offered them his Hoyer lift and they'd refused. Cassia was starting to regret that decision. She sighed, and dragged herself off the couch.
Aster was waiting in the guest bedroom, which Cassia still couldn't bring herself to call their bedroom. Even in their century they'd never shared a room. He was in the new chair, which he maneuvered by blowing and breathing and doing other mouth aerobics into a straw.
"Hello," he said, swiveling slowly to face her, knocking into the corner of the bed. It was the first time they were meeting that day.
"Hello," she said. She lifted him, and was leaning down to set him on the bed when she changed her mind. She sat down with her mate on her lap, cradled against her chest.
"What are you doing?" He said.
Her hands full, Cassia nudged his face up with her nose. "I missed you," she said, searching his eyes.
"Cassia, she's waiting." Aster strained his head up to kiss her cheek. "After, okay?"
Suddenly embarrassed, Cassia nodded, setting him down gently on the bed. He probably thought she was desperate, jelous, scared of losing him to Molly. It was a bleak thought, one that she hoped didn't color her cheeks red as she bent over to unzip Aster's pants.
She was getting quicker at removing his clothes, a fact that they would have joked about at other times, when things weren't so serious and uncertain between them. When he was naked she carried him into the bathroom, where Dr. Moscowitz's shower chair waited in the bathtub. It took up the entire width, and had a hole in the middle, presumably for the toilet. Cassia hadn't made use of it that way yet. She set him down, made sure sure his feet were in the rests, and that his fingers lay flat on the armrests. It was cold, and the hairs on his arms stood out. His legs were thinning out, and his arms were beginning to as well. His ribs strained against the white skin of his chest. Aster watched her watch him.
Cassia turned without a word, just as Molly swept through the door.
"Ready?" She said.
Cassia shut the door behind them. She found herself sinking down on the hall floor, right outside the bathroom, listening to Molly chatter and to the stream of water needles. In a dazed sort of way, she stayed there until she heard the tap turn with a squeak, and the water cease.
∆∆ To be continued…