Reckless Behavior: A Guide to the Early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Twenty: Bonus Material
…a concept that is hard for the modern-day citizen to grasp, but back then, a person's identification was located outside of themselves, on pieces of paper or small plastic cards. Nationality was proclaimed with a small booklet, called a 'passport.' Money was still in the physical form, either in cotton bills or metal coins. Biometric identification was still in its infancy. Still, people back then did grasp the concept of abstract money, as seen with the advent of the 'credit card,' yet another external piece of plastic that…
"She's going to be home soon." Cassia glanced up at the living room clock, which was ticking maddeningly past the eleven o'clock mark. "I mean, she was delusional and feverish last night. How long can a sick person be out for?" Cassia paused in her pacing to glance down at Aster, who was on the floor. She'd put him there to change him, and he'd wanted to stay there, just for a change of position. The wheelchair's imprint on his backside stayed with him all night, even in bed.
"We don't even have a plan," she said, cracking her knuckles and resuming her pacing. "What are we doing?"
"Well I know what I'm doing," Aster said. "But you're just being irritating. Can you sit down somewhere where I can see you?"
Cassia did a 180 degree turn- practicality a twirl, in her frenzied state- and landed on the couch behind her. "Yes. Okay. We need a plan. Let's start with a list of all things we need. Our survival kit."
Aster still couldn't see her. His field of vision was the underside of the desk, the ceiling, and the front of the sofa. It was getting and harder and harder for him to hold up the weight of his own head, something he'd refrained from telling his mate. She had enough to worry about as it is.
"I don't think we're going anywhere anytime soon," he said, deciding to rest his gaze on the empty white above him.
More cracking sounds came from the couch. She was moving on to her neck and shoulders. "Aster, we trained to live in a forest. You basically lived inside a bunch a trees, anyway."
"Yeah? So are we taking the wheelchair? Or are you just going to carry me from now on?"
There was silence from above. "Well," she said finally, "Let's just scope out Croton's lab and alert the police. We should go as soon as it gets dark."
Cassia face looked over the side of the couch. It was displeased. "I'm not going myself."
"I can't come with you," Aster said, hating to have to point out the obvious. "Will I wait out on the parking lot for you? Or do you want to do this piggy-back style?"
The lock in the door turned. Aster suddenly wished to be back in his chair, with the ability to move around. He hated the powerless feeling he got without it.
It wasn't Molly who entered the house first. It was her mate, Samuel. He strode up to Aster, throwing his satchel down on the floor, and suddenly Aster was smothered in the fibers of Cassia's synthetic sweater as she she threw herself at him.
"Get off of me!" His breath came back to him under her stifling chest. Cassia scrambled back, her cheeks quite pink. She tucked a hair behind her ear. "Sorry," she said in Menghish, "I just thought he was going to-"
"Don't ever do that," Aster said.
"Oh." Cassia looked at her fingers. "So. Back in the wheelchair?"
"I think so."
Samuel was standing a foot away, watching the conversation with narrowed eyes. He stood by the couch as Cassia sat Aster up.
"Who's gonna be President?" He asked.
Molly, who'd come in right after him, looked askance. "Sam, you can't-"
"No, I want to know if this is for real," Samuel insisted, shrugging off his coat. "Who's going to win the election tonight?"
Cassia looked at her mate undecidedly. Aster was being held up by the shoulders, and another few seconds and his head would droop.
"Donald Trump," Aster said finally. Cassia stood up, and still supporting him, leaned over and lifted him with a grunt, dragging him into his chair.
"No way," Samuel said. "By what margin?"
"How do you expect us to know such a statistic?" Cassia said.
Aster relaxed as his head rested against the back of his chair. "Twenty-six states," he said. "Two hundred and twenty-seven electoral votes."
They all turned to look at him.
"I have an excellent memory with numbers," he said. "This did come up in our research."
Cassia strapped him in. "We really should go," she said. "We must-"
"No," Samuel said. "You guys are staying right here. Until the election is over, at least." He exchanged a glance with Molly.
"Please," Molly said, "At least stay here tonight." She couldn't quite meet his eyes.
"We're going," Aster said firmly. He didn't like the looks Molly was exchanging with her mate.
Cassia cleared her throat. "Aster, can I speak to you?"
Samuel stood up. "We'll go make something to eat."
Not taking his eyes off of Molly, Aster moved off to the side of the room with Cassia.
"Weren't you just saying that you want to get out of here?" Cassia said.
"I don't know if we should," Aster said. He knew they couldn't understand, but he still felt the urge to whisper. "It's weird how they're so… okay with all this. At least relatively so. There's something going on."
"I guess I'm also rethinking what I said before," Cassia admitted. "Sleeping in the forest? How are we going to manage that?"
"Maybe tonight you should check out Croton's lab," Aster said. "We'll take it from there."
Aster and Cassia left at around eight, with promises to return. Samuel didn't believe it for a second. He and Molly were in her car within minutes of their guests leaving. He was driving.
"I don't know if I can do this." Molly twisted the handle of her purse in her lap. The streetlights flitted over her face, illuminating it in brief burst, faster and faster as Samuel sped up. He gave her only a sidelong glance; his focus was on one place only.
"Where the hell are they going?" He muttered.
"It's too fast," Molly continued. "This is happening too fast. We should think about everything first. Before we do anything rash."
"We don't have time." Samuel's eyes darted from the side to the road. There was a long stretch of dark sidewalk beside them, so they would wait at the end of it to see which way Aster and Cassia would turn. He slowed as he reached the intersection, and shut off the car's lights and switched off the engine.
They waited a beat in silence. The thick darkness was unsettling.
"You know the Doctor is right about them," he said. He reached out and he saw her pull away, subtly, but it still made him twinge. "It's obvious that they're here with an agenda."
"I know, but-"
"Tell me something." If Samuel squinted, he could make out his girlfriend's profile. "Do you love Aster?"
Molly inhaled. "No."
"Then why are you so uncertain?"
"I… I don't know."
"Thought so." Samuel watched Aster bump by across the street in his bulky wheelchair, Cassia at his heels. He watched them turn right. After a minute, he switched on the engine.
"Our part is just tonight," he said. "We're done after this. Everything will go back to normal. Isn't that what you want?"
Molly exhaled. "I guess."
It took a long time to get ready. Once Cassia had Aster all bundled up, he needed to be changed, so she had to undo all the layers to switch his diaper. She was just now finishing her second round of dressing him.
She secured his hood and tightened his scarf. "Is that okay?"
The material was stiff and tight around his neck. "Yeah."
"Do you need to be changed again?"
"No, not yet."
"Very funny. Are you warm?"
"Cassia, I would overheat even if you stuck me into an iceberg." Secretly, he was glad to have all the extra padding around his neck. He couldn't hold his head up anymore, and hopefully the multiple layers would prolong Cassia's noticing.
"You're gonna be outside for a long time," she said, shouldering on her own jacket. "I don't want you to melt."
He looked at her strangely, his long face framed perfectly.
"What?" She said, tucking her hair into a knitted hat, borrowed from Molly's closet.
"You've become really overprotective lately," Aster said. "I'm not sure if I like it."
Cassia shrugged, leading the way down the hall, towards the front door. "It's only because… well, it scares me that you're like this."
Aster stared at her back. "Me too."
Molly was hovering next to the shoe rack. "You guys will be back soon?" She said, hovering over them as Cassia unlatched the door. "Because I'm going to wait up."
Cassia didn't even look back. "Goodnight, Molly," she said.
The walk to the strip mall was plodding and cold. It wasn't long before Cassia's nose was numb from the wind. Buffalo wasn't very well lit, and Aster's chair stumbled on cracks a few times, making him bounce uncontrollably. At least he was well padded.
Along the way, they discussed how they would carry out the bringing-together. They needed a looser, more fluid connection, so that Aster could alert Cassia if anyone was approaching the mall, but at the same time see what she was seeing outside. Cassia was already going to expend a lot of energy during her search, so they'd use energy from Aster's body. He'd be weak, but it didn't matter much.
The strip mall was bare when they got there. Insects chirped in the surrounding bushes, and pebbles crunched as they approached. They headed to a tight cluster of trees on the leftmost side, where Cassia lowered herself onto the pine-strewn ground. She lay her head against the ground so she wouldn't hurt herself during the bringing-together. Aster waited until she was settled.
"Ready?" He said.
"Yes," she said.
He closed his eyes. He still didn't have his Q-band, but hopefully Cassia's would be enough to handle both of their thermal energy. He channeled himself through her, drawing out the nourishment in his blood, coursing from his heart, spread in branch-like veins throughout his body. His nerves crackled, and he was thrown forward, his chest straining against the strap.
It all crashes into me, and it hurts, it hurts, but not with the same smashing intensity as last time. I stagger up. I am still me, but Aster is there in the background, and there's something pressing against my- I mean, his- midsection. I quickly right him, pushing him back against his chair. Thank you, he says in my head.
I made a map of the entry points, but I can still feel this place like a memory of something that was in me, when I took Aster to the nail salon and I felt the structure of the lab below me.
The deserted storefront is easy to open. I don't even need to use my laser. Aster's vision is sharp, like mine, soaking in all the fuzzy details, the glint of glass shards on the floor and the dark stains on the corner, possibly gasoline or refined oil. Sawdust is sprinkled liberally across the boxy, empty room. But it isn't this room that interests me. I press further, stumbling to the back, where a small closet lies open for me, the door on shaky hinges. I step inside, and blackness engulfs me. Aster is trying to calm me but I tell him the dark doesn't scare me. He snorts soundlessly. I'm in your head, he says. Nice try.
Shut up, I say.
This part is going to require all of my energy. I can't enter the lab physically because the whole place is almost surely alarmed. Instead, I lay down on the floor and laser a circle the size of a Twenty-First century cookie. I slip off my Q-band, and a part of me feels naked. Still, it won't really leave my head for another hour or so. That should be long enough.
I drop the band through the whole. I've been pumping power into it all day, enough that it can stick to the ceiling. I close my eyes.
It's looking down on a coat room of sorts.
It's not a coat room, Aster says. Those are surgical masks. And lab coats. I think we're in the storage room.
See anything illegal yet? I ask.
He's not going to have tubes with babies growing in them, Aster says. We're looking for something more subtle. Maybe substances that are contraband. Can your band zoom in?
My band dips as it slides down the side of the door and under the crack, then it shoots back up to the ceiling. I'm careful that it doesn't touch the floor. It enters the next room. One frustrating thing about the layout is that there's no central space. It's just a labyrinth of rooms. This one has a bench to one side, and a glass panel on the other, with a control panel behind it. Suspended from the ceiling are a few ropes with loops at the ends.
There we go, Aster says.
What? I ask. My Q-band does a sweep of the room, making the walls circle dizzyingly in my head. What are you looking at?
The control panel, Aster says. Look at it. Control panels in this century are flat. This one is three-dimensional.
He's right. The panel is a projection. I can fainlty see the outline of grabpatch- a switch that you control by sticking your fingers into dense, colored air and twisting or squeezing.
So? I say. We can't say that Croton's a criminal because he's from the future. And, the fact that he built such technology here complicates things.
I feel something fading on Aster's end, and at first I assume it's the connection. Someone's driving into the parking lot, he says, and even though his voice is silent, it sounds quieter.
Something is wrong. My Q-band bumps up against the glass and an orange light flashes on.
My heart thuds in my chest. I scurry the band back into the storage room. Aster's signal is fading in and out. Something happened to him.
Who's in the lot? I ask.
I don't know, he says.
My Q-band comes back and slips right onto my wrist. Someone knocks down the abandoned shop's door, and it comes down with a crash. I can hear it splintering into pieces. Resettled dust tickles my nostrils, threatening to make me sneeze.
Don't move, Aster says.
Someone crunches over shattered glass. I wait.
∆∆ To be continued…