Molly fell asleep on the couch. In the kitchen, Cassia had finished feeding Aster, and they were sitting in silence, in a stunned way that was the culmination of that exhausting day. Molly knew everything, which meant that they had to leave before she would come to her senses and try to share that information. Dr. Moscowitz- Croton- knew they were there. That was probably higher up on the list of priorities.
Putting that all aside, they were going to talk. Aster took in a deep breath.
"So," Cassia said, leaning forward. "What exactly happened with you and Molly before we met up?"
"We kissed," Aster said. " You know that already. And on the night before you came to Molly's home, she asked to sleep in my bed. And I said yes."
"Why? Were you attracted to her?"
"At the beginning, maybe, I… I don't know," Aster said, staring at the empty bowl of soup. "She was just so sad."
"I'm glad you like to comfort people."
"You know what I mean."
They faced off, neither one blinking, until Cassia dropped her eyes. "Quswàk, I'm so… stupid for bringing this up. It's not important right now. We should be focusing on-"
"You're not stupid, Cassia." Aster watched her wipe a bit of crusty soup from his collar.
She looked frustrated. "I just want to go home."
He wished so much that he could grab her hand, or at least touch her silky white hair and smooth it down. It was something he didn't do enough. "Don't say that," he said softly. "You were so excited to travel back. You wanted to see Tokyo, and San Francisco, and the Amazon Rainforest. The historian's dream. Remember?"
Cassia stood up, gathering all the dishes and the stray vegetable peels from the table. "Yeah, but that was before. You're… you're miserable."
"I'm fine. You take good care of me."
"Aster, I have to help you on the toilet. Don't tell me you're fine."
That silenced him. He watched her take the dishes and dump them in the sink, and turn on the water to the maximum pressure.
"So let's deal with Croton and go home," Aster said finally. "We know from the records that he's doing illegal things under that strip mall."
"We don't know anything," Cassia said, scrubbing hard at the ladle. "We always thought he'd traveled back to curb the study of genetics. But everyone's talking about CRISPR and gene-editing, so… well, I don't know anymore."
"Still," Aster said, maneuvering his wheelchair next to the sink. "He's doing something down there, and if it was legal he wouldn't be underground. So let's check it out."
Cassia slid a dripping plate onto the rack. "And then what? We just alert the police?"
"It doesn't have to be more complicated than that," Aster said. "Then we can go home."
Cassia turned off the tap. She even managed a smile at him. "Maybe we should head to bed, then. Big day tomorrow."
"Who knows," Aster said, leaning up to receive her kiss, "This time tomorrow, we could be on the Prairie south of Rhodium."
"I wish," Cassia said. She led the way to the bathroom. Molly was still passed out the couch, her mouth hanging open. It looked like his mate would be putting him to bed tonight.
Reckless Behavior: A Guide to the Early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Twenty: Bonus Material
…called the Threshold of Absurdity, which refers to the degree in which a society can believe that futuristic technology is possible. The historical period we are discussing is interesting in respect to this, because while time travel is discussed in popular science, it is not actually seen as a realistic prospective. Time travelers in this era would be safe, theoretically, since the Threshold of Absurdity does not allow sane people in this period to believe that travel through time is possible.
This all changed in the mid-century, when the elasticity of quantum wormholes was made viable by process of…
"Ready?" Cassia asked, arms already in position to lift Aster into bed. He nodded into her shoulder, and grabbing two handfuls of his pants, she swung him into bed.
Aster's face was grimly determined and a little zoned out, the way he set it when anyone washed or dressed him. His dark eyes seemed to gloss over, and the taut muscles in his neck made up for the droopiness of his body, in terms of body language. When Aster was down to his underwear and shirt, his nerves buzzing ever so slightly from all the roughhandling, Cassia stepped out of her pants and pulled her bra out from under her shirt. She hated the wire-framed, strappy contraptions, but the shirts here did nothing to support her breasts or keep them warm.
She turned off the lights and crawled under the covers. She snuggled up against him, his soft arm lying flat against the bed. It kept changing shape, becoming thin and bony, his muscles eroding, but his fingers still felt the same.
There was a need inside her that overran all the things that had happened that day. Her body was warm and so was his. Despite everything he was still Aster, her Aster, and in dark, quiet moments like this she knew she needed him.
Cassia nuzzled his chin, bringing her lips to his jaw, cautious as if he would pull back any moment. He didn't. He turned his head and pressed his lips on hers, sucking at her, searching her tongue and teeth with as much desperation as she felt. They didn't talk. Cassia flipped onto her stomach, taking his head in both hands, kissing him as hard as she could. His erect penis was straining against his underwear, and she felt it when her fingers traveled down, snaking under his shirt and then his Calvin Kleins.
She stopped to breathe, panting. "Aster," she whispered. "I'm wet."
He shook his head on the pillow, the streetlight outside lighting him yellow and black. "I can't," he said. "You know I can't."
"Please." Her insides were throbbing, and her underwear was soaked through. She raked her hands thorough his hair, faster and faster. "Please, Aster."
His lips were shrouded in darkness but she saw the way his eyes creased, how sad they were. "I want to, Cassia, but I don't know if I can please you."
"You can. You do." Still panting, she sat up and crossed her arms,pulling off her shirt. "I just want you to…" And here it was, in the small stuffy bedroom in Buffalo, "…I want you to want me. I know I don't show it but-" And now the tears came, clouding her eyes.
She turned away, feeling disgusting in her own naked skin, her breasts floppy on her chest, Aster rigid on the bed. "It's strange," she said in her full voice. "I never cried in Rhodium, but this will be my third time."
"You didn't have to deal with me so much in Rhodium," Aster said. "Here, I make you more crazy than you make me."
Cassia snorted through the tears, coughing and wiping her eyes. She took a deep breath, and when she looked he was still watching her, his eyes sad, but she had the feeling that he was smiling.
"I want you, Cassia," he whispered. "So do it. Take off my underwear."
She smiled, a real smile even though he couldn't see it, and she pushed away the covers. She peeled off his boxers, revealing his thick, hard penis, and pulled his shirt off. Then she couldn't keep her hands away, wanting to feel every part of him. She was still at his side, not having climbed onto him yet, when she felt a drop on her ankle. Confused, she sat back, and the full spray of Aster's urine hit her. She rolled over and stood up next to the bed, her brain not yet registering what was happening. She watched Aster's erection deflate, and the stream turn into a trickle, culminating in a yellow puddle between his legs.
"Quswàk," she whispered. Droplets slid down her calf.
She watched his chest heave, and a sharp smell reached her nostrils. She ducked under the bed to where the diapers were kept, and quickly took one from the package, shaking it out.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice trembling. He caught sight of the white undergarment in her hand, and from the look on his face she knew it was too late.
Cassia stayed frozen for a few seconds, almost afraid to touch him. The sheets were soiled,and completely soaked through. Aster's cheeks had blossomed red. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I'm so sorry."
"Shh." Cassia dropped the diaper and leaned over to kiss him. The smell was overwhelming, and she knew she had to clean him up. "It's okay."
"This is why," Aster said, raising his head to look at the mess he'd made. "This is why I let Molly into my bed. Because I don't feel like..." He slumped back onto the pillow. He was angry, and he never got angry, and despite the situation it made her heart beat faster.
"What she said is true," Aster hissed. "I am a robot, and I can't talk about anything, but if you must know, I don't feel like a man. There. I said it. There is nothing worse than… this."
There was a closed bag of wipes under the bed, next to the sky-blue plastic package. Cassia took one from the bag and began to wipe Aster up as best as she could, lifting his penis and spreading his legs. The urine on her leg was growing cold but she ignored it. Then she lifted him up and carried him into the bathroom, and set him down in the shower chair.
She didn't turn on the tap. She sat down on the cold pink rim of the tub, her feet inside.
"You are a robot," Cassia said, looking up at him. Aster's hand was slipping of the handrest into his lap; she straightened it. "But you're so human that it overtakes everything else. The robot part doesn't matter."
Aster stared straight ahead, his jaw set. But as she swung a leg over onto the floor, he stopped her.
"Wait," he said. "You're wrong. I am mechanical. There's nothing organic in me. But I love you and I can't help it. You deserve better than this, I know, but I just can't- I can't stop loving you."
Cassia sat back down and looked up at him, and it was too much for her and she almost made a sarcastic comment or waved him off. Instead she said, "I love you too."
Then Aster laughed, and she laughed, the first time in months. She got out of the tub, and leaned over to kiss his cheek. It was the first time they'd ever said it. Here she sat with her mate, about to wash him because he'd soiled himself, and she had never been happier.
"What's wrong with us?" Aster said, still grinning.
"I think I might be a robot too," Cassia said, standing up. "I never thought we had to say it, but we do. And we should."
"I think we should say it every day."
"Don't push it," Cassia said. "I don't think we can handle that." She leaned over to turn on the tap. She pulled up the knob and the warm water engulfed them both; she pulled the curtain closed and took the shower head off the hook.
"Some time for just us," Samuel explained when she got into the car. Recently, he'd been trying so hard. He was so affectionate.
The café he picked was a new one, classy enough that there were not only University students, but adults and other people as well. Two guys at the counter had huge black plugs in their ears, and one had stringy long hair and an eyebrow piercing. The rest were middle-aged. Most people were there with their laptops for company, and from every outlet two or three white wires were plugged in.
Molly and Sam found a table in the back, a table for four because all the double tables were taken by the laptop people. They ordered from a the harried barrista, and went to sit down. The coffee took a long time to come, or at least it felt that way, and Molly tried to fill that time with talk of vague things. The upcoming election. The nasty weather. The business. She and Sam were lovers, but when their conversations ran dry, they always reverted back to the business.
"Latte and espresso!" The girl behind the counter called out.
"I'll get those," Samuel said with relief, scrambling up. He brought back two steaming cups.
Molly sipped her latte in a daze. The whole morning had been a daze. In fact, last night was pretty hazy too, but she knew she'd said some things to Aster that she'd probably regret.
"I feel like we haven't hung out in so long," Samuel said, reaching across the table to squeeze her hand. "With all that's been happening in your life lately, I can't really blame you. But let's put that out of the way for now."
She stared at him blankly. Steam rise from his espresso, slow and sluggish as their thoughts. He was talking about Aster and Cassia, of course.
She had to tell him where they were from. It didn't shock her to think about it anymore, because it was simply something she knew, something she felt she'd known since her birth, or at least since Aster's birth. Samuel wouldn't take it well, but she was going to explode if she kept it to herself any longer.
Her boyfriend grimaced. "Uch, I hate the cane sugar they started using here. It doesn't dissolve very well."
She cleared her throat. "I need to tell you something."
Samuel glanced up from his coffee.
"So… you know how Aster and Cassia are kind of… vague about their origins?"
Samuel leaned back, taking a sip. "Mol, I thought we were gonna focus on us."
"Yeah. But they're from the future."
Samuel choked. He set down his drink, coughing. The sound evolved to laughter. "Wow," he grinned, "That's the best theory so far. I like that."
Molly stared him dead in the eye. "I'm serious."
"Come on, Molly." But his eyes widened a little. "Really."
Thirty minutes later, he still wasn't convinced, and Molly was pushing her way to the ladies room, angry tears threatening to escape. She knew there was a way to convince him, in fact there was probably some easy way, but she was so tired and her head was pounding. She couldn't think straight.
Washing her hands after using the washroom, her phone rang. She had averted her eyes from the mirror until now, but the loud noise made her look up. Her hair was flat, and her eyes were red. She turned away and pulled her phone from her pocket. She didn't recognize the number.
"Hello?" She said with a tremble.
"Hello, Molly," a soothing male voice said on the other end. "It's Dr. Moscowitz. I need to talk to you about something."
"Doctor, I-" she glanced around, knowing she couldn't talk in public. The restroom had only two stalls, one of which was occupied.
"Samuel thinks I'm crazy," she said, lowering her voice. "You have to help me. I'm starting to think that I'm crazy, and that maybe I just dreamed up the whole-"
"Of course you aren't crazy," the Doctor said. He spoke so calmly, like an older and gruffer version of Aster. "I need to talk to you in person. Everything I told you, Molly, is because I need your help. You can explain everything to Samuel later. It's very important."
"Look, I don't want to get involved in this," Molly turned towards the paper towel dispenser, hunching into the corner. "I need some time to digest everything."
"We haven't got time. I can't say anything over the phone. How soon can you meet me at my office?"
Molly creaked open the door. Samuel was still at their table, his head in his hands.
"An hour?" She ventured.
There was a churning in her stomach, like she was about to perform in a play. Samuel glanced up as she approached.
"I think we should go home." He spoke slowly. Was he scared of her?
She hoped the Doctor had a good reason for all this. Because there was a lot of fixing to do.
Often, the first fight that mates have is over where they should meet. That's why I was glad that Cassia offered to come to Astragalus, saying she'd never seen this part of the continent.
She's going to be here any minute, and I'm trying to open the branch-roof to let in the optimum amount of sunlight. I don't usually notice these kind of things, but now it's driving me crazy. I tap the bark of Ginger, the Mother tree. With a groan and a creak, the trees loosen up, allowing sunlight to filter in uninhibited.
"Too much," Albie complains from the corner. He's supposed to be meditating, but instead he's shielding his eyes like I pointed a laser at him. I didn't even notice him there.
"Leave," I tell him. I knock on Ginger again. She squeezes the branches above me, and I almost get the sense that she's annoyed with me.
"I want to see her," Albie says, hopping up and shaking out his robe. He glances down at his Q-band. "And there's Grandmother, calling my name." He sighs. "See you, brother."
I squint, looking upwards. I reach out to Ginger, but she squeezes her roots underground and I can feel it through the tight soil. "Fine," I mutter.
Albie pauses at the door. "Oh, and a little advice," he says, "I would hold out on showing her the nerves." He snakes his fingers down his body, making a hissing sound. "Don't want to freak her out."
"Yeah. Thanks." As if I haven't been thinking about just that for a month. I lower myself onto the rug in the corner, and the soil loosens to make me comfortable.
I used to wonder, as a kid, if I would even get a mate. If the system would recognize me. But it did, and now she's coming to visit. I offered to meet her at the town gates, but she declined. Said she wanted to see if she could find her own way.
There is rustling outside, so I stand up, pushing my way past the drooping willow outside my door. And there she is.
She's got one hand holding the hair behind her ear, and the other pressing a leaf to her forehead. It's upside down, the stem poking the bridge of her nose. She's leaning over, about to teeter over, and when I look I see that her ankles are bound like cuffs by two mossy roots.
Quswàk. I forgot to tell Ginger that we're having guests.
"Cassia?" I say.
She looks up. Her eyes are large and upturned, and her hair is white as chalk. She looks determined, probably because of the roots holding her captive. I stomp on a bit of root snaking out the door, and the ones wrapped around my mate's ankles slither away.
"Sorry about that," I say, and I can see she's looking at me too, wondering if mine is a face she can imagine waking up to for the rest of her life.
"Was that a theft guard?" She asks, leaning down to rub her ankles. Her professor's robe is shapeless, but somehow she moves in it like a feline- not a delicate cat, but a tiger, calculated and graceful. "And I always thought you were crazy for having a tree as a security measure."
I smile. This sounds more like the Cassia I've spoken to these past weeks. We both stand awkwardly, until I remember to invite her in.
"Right, yeah," she says, following me inside. The leaf is still on her forehead, pressed there with her pinky. "Sorry, I'm not so good at… this."
"Me neither." I lead her past the main room, which has nothing but my bed, the corner rug, and a couple of washing springs. The back has the pond, with the levitating bench on top. I like to work out equations here, projecting them into the air right above the rippling water. Cassia knows this, and she puts a hand on her hip when she sees the pond. I think she's pleased. We're surrounded by trees, and Ginger's pushed out some Cala lillies for the occassion, making them so close to bank that they seem to grow from the water.
"What do you think?" I ask, as I beckon the bench towards us.
"It's a lot less mathematical than I imagined." She lowers her hand. The leaf's sticky backside has worked its magic. She's going to have a green stain on her forehead now for a week.
"It's a pond," I say, watching a couple of koi fish flit by at my feet.
"Yeah, but it's so… romantic." She blushes. "It's the flowers, I guess."
I frown. "That's Ginger's contribution." I watch as the color of the water changes from emerald green to teal. She's really enjoying herself, that tree. It's not often that we have company.
Cassia is impressed. "Housekeeper as well as security guard. Wow."
The bench arrives and I offer her my hand, which she takes. We sit down together, and push off the bank. My toes, peeking out of threadbare sandals, skim the surface of the pond. Hers don't even come close.
"I really liked your book," I say, as we settle in the center of the pond.
"Which one? Reckless Behavior?" She says. "Oh, I had fun with that one. It's a lot of my own opinions, you know."
"How'd you think of the title?" I ask.
"It only came when the whole book was finished," she says. There's a lot to look at, but her eyes are glued to mine. "I just thought about how people lived and thought back then. They were just a lot less… conscientious than they are now."
"You can take off the leaf, by the way." I grin. "I'm not a dignitary. Or a president."
"Oh, Aster!" She peels it off and drops it onto the water. There's a greenish-yellow resin between her eyes, and a red indent on her nose. "Why didn't you tell me?"
I lean back. "I think I like you when you're indignant."
Cassia sighs, and leans back with me. We rest on our elbows, staring at the vine-crawling back of my home, the sun edging ever closer to the branch-roof. She looks at me and gives me a crooked smile, something I know she doesn't give out often. I know I'll cherish these smiles, whenever I can get them.
"So tell me about Rhodium," I say, closing my eyes.
The memory stopped, abruptly. Cassia watched her mate's eyes flutter open, and before he could speak she moved in for a kiss. He turned and so she missed his cheek, instead landing on his nose.
"Good morning," Aster said, croaky.
"Was that an organic memory?" Cassia sat up, crossing her legs on the bed. She'd been up for ten minutes and was restless, but hadn't wanted to wake him. "It was so vivid."
"It was, actually. One of my favorites." Aster smiled, raising his head to look at her.
"Any reason you were thinking about that?"
His head fell back on the pillow. "Well, you, obviously. And also because I remember we got into a great conversation about your book. Remember?"
"Sure," Cassia said. She stood up and pulled the covers away. "You said the best part was the twentieth chapter. All the fun facts."
"Yes. But particularly the Twentieth-Century Survival Kit. I liked that. And I think we may have to have to make our own kit."
Cassia was unsure of whether to move Aster or not. She looked down at his diaper. There was something that she needed to ask but didn't particularly want to.
"It's wet," he said.
She bit her lip. "Oh. Can we establish that you're… incontinent again?"
He looked frustrated. "I don't really know."
Cassia nodded, and leaned over to unpeel the tabs. "What were you saying about a kit?"
"You know we have to leave, right?" Aster concentrated on her face as she pulled the urine-soaked diaper from underneath him. She replaced it with a clean one, lifting his leg to scoot it beneath him.
"I know. I've been trying not think about it." Cassia had always imagined this mission as a scholarly one, where they'd come and observe and discuss things with people. She never imagined getting caught up with natives like Molly or Samuel. Aster was apparently thinking the same thing.
"I don't want to just desert Molly either," he admitted. "Especially after what Croton did to her. Shoving a foreign Q-band into a brain has got to leave at least some permanent brain damage."
Cassia found his pants from yesterday on the floor next to hers. She picked them up, sliding each of Aster's ankles into the holes. "What do you think she could do, though? You think she poses any danger to us?"
"If she tells people and people believe her, she could completely mess up the timeline."
"We don't even know if that's possible."
"You want to take that chance?"
Cassia tugged his zipper closed, and then retrieved her own pants. "No. So the best thing, then, would be to expose Croton's lab and get out of here."
"Exactly." Aster watched her get dressed. When she was done, she lifted him with a grunt and set him down in his wheelchair. She adjusted the sip and puff controls so he could reach them.
"You're just forgetting one thing," Cassia said, opening the bedroom door.
Aster slid through, and swiveled to face her. "What?"
"Molly is emotionally dependent on you." She watched him avert his eyes. "Come on, you know it's true."
Aster didn't answer for a while. He turned, heading for the bathroom. The living room was empty, and Molly's bedroom door was wide open. She wasn't home.
"I just need to talk to her," Aster said, entering the kitchen and sliding behind the table. "Really talk to her. I just need to get to her before anyone else does."
"Where are we going?" Molly asked, watching unfamiliar streets roll by. The Doctor didn't answer. He was intent on the street signs. She stared out the window, watching storefronts and skeletal trees flash by.
God. When had she become so meek? "Where are we going?" She repeated, louder.
Dr. Moscowitz pulled into the corner spot on a residential street. "Nowhere in particular. I just want to be somewhere safe, away from listening ears."
She swallowed. The car doors were unlocked but she felt bolted inside. A girl on a scooter sped by, unaware.
"How are you feeling?" The Doctor asked.
She turned to face him, tears welling up. Throughout the entire ordeal, he'd been so kind to her, right now she just needed someone to listen.
"Okay, I guess."
"I know it's a lot to digest," he said, keeping his hands on the wheel. "But you may have noticed, I only showed you excerpts from Aster's life, the bare minimum to get you informed. There's a lot more we need to discuss."
"I don't want to hear." She kept her eyes on the maroon purse in her lap. She opened the latch and closed it. "Really. Please don't get me involved. I can't deal with it."
"You can," Dr. Moscowitz said. "That's why I told you about all this. You have full-time access to them."
"Aster and Cassia aren't here with good intentions, Molly." He paused. "Do you remember what Aster's town was like?"
Molly frowned. Just thinking about her experience with that watch made her stomach toil. "I remember… giant trees, almost like buildings. And huts."
"Exactly," the Doctor said. "Astragalus has nothing visibly man-made. The entire town is part of a Naturalist movement, and Aster comes from an anti-technology terrorist group."
Molly felt a chill run down her spine. "How do you know? How do you know any of this?"
The Doctor had a faraway look. "I've been tracking them for a while. It's only been recently that I've amassed enough proof. It makes sense, if you think about it."
Molly found herself nodding. The first time she'd met Aster, on the parking lot outside her office, she'd had a weird feeling about him. She always knew something was off.
"He's a terrorist?" She said. She felt her fingers gropping for the door handle. Her vision swam and suddenly there was a string hand on her arm.
"Molly, I need your help," the Doctor said. "There's a lot at stake if we don't stop him."
She twisted out of his grip and pushed open the door. One foot on the sidewalk, she paused. "Like what?"
"We're talking about a man who travelled back two hundred years," the Doctor said gravely. "I don't want to know what he had planned.
Molly brought her leg back into the car. The freezing air whipped through her hair. "What do you want me to do?" She asked.
∆∆To be continued...