One hand on her mate's back, the other holding her Q-band, Cassia got ready to switch on the laser. Before making the incision, she closed her eyes and stilled, because her hand was trembling. She'd tweaked with Aster's nerves before, once for practice, so the shaking was not called for. Disgusted at her traitorous fingers, she switched hands. Being ambidextrous was useful.
"Wait," Aster said. His voice was muffled by the carpet. She released him, and there was a red mark where her hand had been. She hasn't meant to press so hard. He flopped over and hoisted himself up on his elbows. "Maybe we should wait. Just in case something goes wrong."
"You don't trust me?" Cassia squeezed her fists. Why was she shaking?
"Well, there's always the possibility. I don't want to be a useless lump for the rest of this trip."
"Oh this is a trip for you?"
"Cassia, focus." Aster sat up. He was skinnier than she remembered, but they'd only had sex once, so what did she know?
"Molly's gonna be out of her bedroom as soon as she gets dressed," he said, "And we need to give her an explanation."
"We can make use of the Threshold of Absurdity." Surely they didn't have to worry about this woman. She was hot-tempered and emotional, and while that said nothing about her intelligence, Cassia wasn't worried. "She isn't going to believe we are time travelers even if we wanted her to."
"So what are you suggesting we say?" Aster cracked his knuckles.
"We can invoke our genetic modification."
"I tried that once before," Aster said. "It's not gonna work. She's heard of the concept, but humans designed from scratch is a bit ahead of this time. They don't even know what most genes are responsible for yet."
"So everyone here is a Natural?" Cassia snorted. "No wonder they're all so weak and stupid."
Aster looked up, and Cassia heard the footsteps behind her.
"Can we trust her?" Cassia said, still in Manghish.
"Yes." Aster didn't skip a beat. He said so like he knew her. Something stirred inside Cassia- was she jelous?
Molly entered the living room, dressed in the blue denim that enthralled people for way too long. She threw a pile of clothing onto Aster's lap, and sank down on the couch. Cassia pretended not to notice the gesture.
Her mate spoke first. "Hello."
She chuckled nervously. "Hey, guys."
"Are you afraid of us, Mohy?" Aster was never one to waste his words.
Molly bit her lip, playing with a bump on the armrest. "I don't know, Aster… you burnt a hole through my mattress. With your body. Should I be afraid?"
"No, do not be. I will explain." He glanced briefly at Cassia. "We are from a society different from your own. As such, technologies differ."
Molly frowned. "And what society would that be?"
"You do not know it. We are hidden because we do not wish our secrets exposed."
"So how's you burn through my bed?"
"I did not. Cassia did."
Now they both turned to Cassia, effectively to have her pick up the thread. Well. Aster had always thought she was too immersed in the facts to have an imagination, but she had her story ready.
"I was near window when the burning below my mate occured," she said. "I was outside, trying to discern if Aster was in immediate danger. The burning is due to my laser." To prove her point, she aimed the Q-band at one of the legs of Molly's couch, adjusted the intensity with a wave of her thumb, and sliced off the bottom of the front left couch leg with a quick sizzle.
"Holy shit." Molly flew off the seat, it wobbling in her wake. Bits of ash floated onto the carpet. "You just chopped my couch!"
Aster was pulling a shirt of black synthetic material over his head. He tugged it down and glared at Cassia. "Excellent. Thank you for explaining so well."
Molly wasn't finished, and she looked more distressed than before. "Okay, well, why'd you aim your laser at Aster?"
"It was accidental," Cassia said, slipping her Band back onto her wrist. "I was quite angered to see my mate in bed with another woman."
"You, uh, saw…" Molly cleared her throat. Aster looked equally uncomfortable.
Cassia looked down at her lap. Somehow, that didn't feel as good as she thought it would.
"Wow, I…" Molly shook her head, coming to sit cross-legged next to them. Whule her face was contorted, Aster wasn't even looking bashful. He was staring her right in the eye.
"You know…" Molly rubbed her forehead, searching for words. "You guys are really, really straightforward. I'm not used to it. You just… say stuff right out."
Cassia said nothing, just raised an eyebrow. When she taught classes at the University, she could keep such a position for minutes, while the student sat squirming. Confessions always came quickly that way. But what Cassia didn't expect was Aster's reaction to all this. He seemed calmly defiant, and right now he was looking at Molly, not her.
Was he considering this woman as a mate?
Cassia had enough of this conversation. She stood up. "What you do with Aster does not concern me."
"What?" This was from Aster. He was putting on pants beneath his blanket, writhing this way and that on the floor.
"We have not been bonded yet," Cassia said. She couldn't believe her own words, or the way Molly's eyes lit up. She hated this sheep-haired woman. "And I am not your guardian, Aster, and nor are you mine. Do as you please."
Cassia cleared her throat. "The weather outside is quite dreary. May I have a hot tea?"
It was simple. Croton had travelled back in time for one reason: to halt the study of genetics.
He didn't think Aster, or Cassia, or any other Improved Humans should exist the way they did, born without mother or father. The students and professors at Rhodium University knew this was true, because he'd said so before he'd left. Historical files showed traces of him in the past- the early Twenty-First Century, to be precise. Apparently, he'd gone under the name Moscowitz, and made quite a name for himself in the state university of New York as a scientist. No one was exactly sure what he'd done in the past, but the fact that he was there was still nerve-wracking.
This fuzzy data immediately created a rift between the two camps in the Uni. The Multiverse camp, who believed in an infinite amount of parallel universes, said Oh well, the man is wreaking havoc in another universe, hope they'll recover someday. The Bubble camp, who believe our universe is but one stage in a series of expansions and contractions of matter, said that Croton is going to mess up our timeline. The man has to be stopped.
He hasn't messed up anything, the Multiverse camp said. Nothing's changed!
Yeah, well maybe, said the Bubbles, it's because we've already fixed it by going after him.
The winning argument was 'better be safe than sorry,' proposed by the Bubbles. That's how Aster and Cassia found themselves in circa 2016, speeding along Route 990, on the outskirts of Buffalo.
They had decided that it was time to check up on the current state of microbiology, just to get a handle of what Croton's influence was around here.
Aster and Cassia had spent the afternoon scouring the Internet for different Moscowitzes who might fit their criteria for Croton, even though Cassia's Andrew fit the description best, so far. The only other Moskowitz they'd encountered, the eye doctor, was way out of the age range they were looking for. If they couldn't find the man directly, they'd have to see what he was doing, at least.
They found someone: a Sarah Frantz, a retired professor who had taught bioethics at the University at Buffalo. She still gave guest lectures from time to time, but most importantly, she was the first person who agreed to talk to them.
"I think the Q-band malfunction says something about whether the timeline is fixed or dynamic," Aster said, as he struggled to keep up with Cassia's powerwalk. They were on the dirt road leading up to Dr. Frantz's house, surrounded only by trees, the occasional traffic sign, and boxes for paper mail. Molly had driven them as far as the highway met this side street, where they'd elected to get out and walk the rest of the way.
"It is a pleasant day," Aster had said. Truthfully, he couldn't stand being in the same space as Molly and Cassia. And it wasn't a pleasant day at all. The sky had been erratic and cranky all day, and now clouds gathered with a rumble above them. They still had another eight minutes or so of walking. Aster sighed.
"I personally always rooted for the fixed theory," he said. "I wonder how that interpretation would fit here."
"You don't have to try and make conversation." Cassia's hands were plunged deep in the pockets of the 'wind-breaker' Molly had given her. "After two days of Croton's irksome chatter, some silence would be nice."
"Don't call him that. We don't know for sure." Aster wouldn't say it, but he was disappointed. He and Cassia were never great lovers but they'd been great at arguing. The timeline debate was always Cassia's favorite. She believed that events were dynamic, so by them traveling back two hundred years, they were changing history.
The rumble from above grew louder. A cold drop made a dot on his knee. Soon, that drop was surrounded by many others. It was ten seconds before the sky opened up to pour rain like buckets.
"Not again," Cassia grumbled. The rain made a pattering sound against her jacket. Rhodium was near a desert and almost never got rain, and she was not adjusting very well to the constant deluges of autumn in Buffalo.
Aster was focused downward, on the dirt that was quickly morphing into mud. He pumped his arms quicker now, palms streaked with dirt, but the lack of traction was winning.
Cassia noticed. "Should we move to the middle of road?"
They both turned into time to watch a car whoosh by, wheels spinning in the effort to move forward. Aster scoffed. "Not much better there."
Cassia got behind him and tried to push. It was a small improvement. By then they were completely soaked, and Aster was reminded of that rainy night when he'd sat outside of Danny's, waiting and waiting for a mate who didn't show. How Molly had come, how they'd kissed.
Quswàk. She was really messing with his head.
Cassia stopped pushing. She came to stand in front of him, hands on her hips. For a moment Aster worried that she was going to want to talk about Molly. He wasn't sure what he'd say about that. But then she said, "Let me carry you."
Aster's eyes bugged out at her. The rain was stinging his shaving cuts. "Absolutely not."
Cassia didn't budge from his way. Her hair was pasted onto her head and her jacket was crumpled over her small frame. One would never guess that her strength enabled her to carry three of him, if she so desired.
"It's not like we have any other choice," she said. "And it doesn't have to be…" she searched for the word, and not finding it, used a Late English one. "Romantic."
Aster's eyes narrowed. The rain fell. "Alright," he said. He leaned back and unthreaded his belt, winding it through one of his wheels, in a spot between the overlapping spokes.
Cassia nodded. She turned and crouched, almost as if she was going to sit on his lap, and he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Cassia pulled him up from under his thighs, effortlessly, bumping him up onto her back. She leaned forward to allow him to grab his wheelchair. Between the odd angle, the rain, and her head next to his, Aster fumbled it, finally managing to get it folded. Cassia waited tersely, holding him tight, until he managed to get the belt-loop that held his chair attached to his arm. Cassia hoisted him up again, so that the collapsed chair balanced on his back.
"Ready?" she said.
He didn't answer. Cassia started off anyway. It was hard to see up ahead as she trudged down the road through the mud, but she was barely bent over. They were both cold- her wet fingers holding him up, his cheeks taking the brunt of the drops- but the space between them was warm. His torso was too long for him to be able to rest his head on her shoulder, and instead the side of his jaw grazed her scalp.
They passed a few more mailboxes, and a car sloshed by. Aster's chair dug into him. His breathing started to compliment hers, an overlay of in and out, spin and out. Her memories started to appear in his head. Trembling fingers in a strange bathroom, Cassia's fingers, unbuttoning her vest, pausing at each pearly clasp. The mirror hadn't been washed in a while, and it had murky splotches along the bottom edge. The lights were dingy. Her pants slid down.
"You coming?" A male voice from the other side of the door. She breathed deeply, ready to-
"Stop that," Aster said, here, now, on the forested street. The memories were gone like a curl of steam.
Cassia almost dropped him. Aster's hands gripped her tight, as he slid down around her neck. Cassia cursed.
"What are you doing?" She yelled. "Aster, you trying to-" Almost choking as she bent over, the wheelchair swinging wildly behind them, she got her bearings back and shouldered him again. If her arms were aching, it didn't show.
"I was in your head," Aster said. Cassia was breathing hard, from the shock. "It's the bringing-together," he continued. "It's still there."
"Quswàk." She turned her head to the side. "What did you see?"
"I think you can tell me."
"That was Andrew, wasn't it? Your Croton?"
Cassia's breathing was labored. Maybe he was taking a toll on her. "Yes," she said. "I'm sorry you had to see that."
Silence for the next few minutes. Dr. Moskowitz's house came up into view up ahead, where the road curved. It was a humble, country-like structure on a hill, scattered trees and shrub surrounding it like upright guards.
"It was once," she said. Her heart pounded against his wrists. "You know I didn't want to sleep with him. I had to. It was-"
"Please." Aster tightened his grip. "Just stay out of my head."
They got to where mud turned into a concrete path. It was windy, and ended in a dozen or so steps up the hill. The house was shuttered, with a brown door cut in middle of the brown slats.There was no empty lawn, just pine trees all around. Cassia held him until they reached the top, the professor's porch. She was about to knock.
"Wait," Aster said. "I need- I need to be in my chair."
"Let's just go in first. I'm wet."
He hadn't said anything, but she was so quick to lower him go the ground that she must have felt the way he felt. They had to figure out a way to turn that thing off. The porch was wet wood, but it didn't matter, he was soaked through anyway. As soon as Cassia released him, something else slithered away. He felt alone again.
Perhaps the bringing-together was strengthened by contact.
Cassia was on one knee, pulling open his chair. Before he could transfer she took him by the armpits and lifted him up, efficiency and coldly. She was shivering, and trying not to show it. Aster was still lifting his legs into the footrests while she rang the doorbell.
A tone resounded through the house. Dr. Frantz opened the door before Aster had a chance to thank his mate.
The plan had been this: they were two foreign students from Lichtenstein, considering taking adult education courses at the University. They would ask the professor about the school and about her field, and try to get a feel for which direction the edge of genetics was taking. If somebody was taking pains to stunt the development of genetics, they would know Croton was somehow involved.
But he was struck dumb when the woman opened the door.
For one thing, she was the oldest-looking person Aster had ever seen. It was the thing of stories, of old media such as cinema- the creases in the skin, so deep they had their own shadows, the sag beneath her neck. Eyes clouded with yellow, wrinkled hands and arms emerging from a stooped body.
The old lady looked equally shocked. "My goodness, you two look piece you've been through a hurricane! Come in!"
The entire time she was glancing down at Aster. "How did you get up here?" She marveled, stepping back to let them drip into her front hall. Her voice had a warble to it. It was frightening, truth be told.
"I believe I may be leaving a track beneath myself," Aster said, hoping to distract this ancient being by bringing attention to her muddied floor. The way her eyes stayed on him showed she'd already noticed- she wasn't the type of person to miss things, apparently.
"Don't worry, sweetheart, I'll get something to mop that up." She patted him on the arm. Cassia stood behind him, breathing between trembling teeth and probably not knowing what to do with herself.
"It's really coming down out there! We'll need towels for both of you as well," Dr. Frantz said, shaking her head at their water-bogged clothes. She shuffled away, leaving them to peer past her into the house. What Aster ould see from here was rooms that appeared paneled with wood. The one directly in front had a lot for making fire, judging by the ashes and grate inside it. People in their century had artificial heating, but enjoyed fireplaces for whimsical reasons. The room had photos of smiling children and adults clustered on the wall, in no particular order or grouping.
"Here." Dr. Frantz handed each of them a dark green towel, and shook out a third and laid it out for Aster to roll onto.
Five minutes later, Aster was squeezed behind her kitchen table. It smelled of mouse excrement and scented candles in there, each odour not quite overpowering the other. The professor wouldn't stop apologizing for not having a change of clothes for them, though she did insist on them taking off their socks and hanging them to dry over the heater that chugged in the other room.
"I hope this brew is alright," she said, placing a small ceramic cup in front of Aster. Her hands shook, and the cup rattled on the saucer. "I've only got chai. I won't drink anything else. But it's Wizotsky- an excellent company, so I'm sure you'll like it."
"Thank you," Aster said, taking a sip. The rich brown liquid was scalding and bitter. He smiled. "I find it delicious."
"Oh, dear. You're still shivering," she said, tapping her cheek. "You really should have come another day. There's no rush. The University only accepts foreign students in your department for the next winter semester, if I'm not mistaken." She bustled off into another room, presumably to find blankets. Her voice drifted through the paneling. "You've got lots of time to kill."
Cassia was standing by the counter, where she'd been instructed to help herself and make a tea. She was smiling to herself. "That woman really likes you," she said in Maghish. "Either that, or her grandchildren haven't visited in a while, and she needs somebody to take care of."
Aster took another sip and grimaced. Still bitter. "It's been like that with everyone so far. I can't stand it."
"Just let me operate, then."
He shook his head, letting his chin bask in the rising heat of his tea. "Too much of a risk."
Cassia stirred her tea, the metal spoon clinking daintily against the cup. He could almost feel her frustration. Or maybe he really could feel it.
"Well, while we're here, milk this woman for what she's worth," Cassia said finally. "I mean, if she's just gonna tell us stuff we can find on that Internet, she's useless. We need real, inside information."
Cassia rolled her eyes, and for a second, Aster could imagine them sitting on the woven mats outside his home, talking and teasing for hours. That had been a long time ago. Or in a long time to come.
Dr. Frantz returned. She handed Cassia a fat comforter with a faded floral print, and draped a matching one over Aster's shoulders. "There you go, dear," she said. "Now, just remind me your names. Oh and I hear you want to switch to our Jacobs School bioethics department! Let me tell you, the faculty is just wonderful over on the North Campus…"
They chatted for the next while about things Cassia and Aster pretended not to know about, while Aster forced himself to down his cup. Cassia had added a shipload of honey to her tea, and was sipping it quite happily, nodding at the professor when appropriate.
"…but all this CRISPR business is worrying." Dr. Frantz chuckled. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'm just an old traditionalist."
"Which crisper do you refer to?" Aster said, pulling himself right out of the doze he'd almost fallen into. The name set off alarm bells. Cassia, too, leaned forward.
"Oh, you must have heard of the technology," Dr. Frantz said, pouring Aster more tea from the kettle in the middle of the table. "The genetic engineering world hardly knows what to do with itself, it's been thrown into such a tizzy."
"The sciences in Lichtenstein are not as… are not up to par with the American sciences," Cassia said. "Might you explain?"
"Well, sure," the old woman said. She straightened her striped blouse, as if readying herself for a lecture. "Neither of you speak English very well, not to offend you, so I'll try to stick to simple terms. Let's see. For a while now, scientists have been studying the way bacteria ward off viruses, by snipping and saving pieces of virus DNA for later use in attack. The Japanese have been working on this for years. You must have read the papers."
"Of course," Cassia said. She nudged a little glass bowl with sugar in it toward Aster. He smiled gratefully at her. She ignored him.
"Turns out," Dr. Frantz continued, "We can manipulate the bacteria into snipping and replacing any piece of DNA we want. Can you imagine? Within a few years, we'll all be custom-making our children, chopping away the parts of their genome that we don't like, replacing them with better traits." She shook her head again, completely immersed, giving Aster the opportunity to pour a bit of sugar into his tea.
"Look, I can see the advantages for, say, preventing Alzheimer's or Huntington's," she continued, "but once we get to superficial, cosmetic changes, it just… it feels wrong. You understand?"
"Oh, I agree completely." Cassia smiled, but her face was pale. "Professor, thank you so much for your time. You have been so helpful to us. May we borrow your telephone?"
Reckless Behavior: A guide to the early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Twelve: Religion
…extremism is on the rise, forstering cults and fringe groups like never before. This is before the rise of the scientific cults, such as the Worshippers of Quantum Randomness or the Hawkingians.
Morals from the the three major Abrahamic religions continue to influence decisions made in the areas of science and medicine. Notable issues of the day include euthanasia, abortion, use of stem cells for research, and the growth of embryos outside a woman's womb. Many scientific advances are not readily accepted by everyone, often for reasons of fear…
The rain outside had slowed to a lazy spit. Cassia carried Aster down the stairs, while Molly walked in front of them with his wheelchair.
Once in the car, Molly talked about work with Aster. Cassia stared right ahead, stupefied.
Croton's influence had already begun. CRISPR wouldn't become a globally accepted technology for decades to come, at least in her version of history, yet five minutes ago they were getting opinions from a little old lady about it. Cassia cracked her knuckles. These people weren't ready to custom-make humanity yet. They still killed animals and ate them, for crying out loud. The slave trade still existed in some parts of the world. Contemporary humans were killing the earth, waging civil wars, and eating themselves to death. They couldn't be trusted.
What was Croton doing? Was he speeding up development instead of slowing it? She stared out the water-streaked window, more anxious than ever. They weren't making any progress, and things were worse than they'd thought.
And Aster. Aster was… different. Up in the front of the vehicle, Molly was laughing, presumably at a piece of humor that Aster had shared. Her mate was capable of some decent jokes when he was in the mood. Now, he'd chosen to make Molly, this strange-haired woman, laugh. Perhaps Molly was doing something right. Perhaps she had something Cassia didn't have.
"You better not get sick from this," Molly told Aster as she exited the autoroute. "We got a lot of work to do tomorrow. Honestly, I'm not sure how we managed before you got here."
"I understand that this means I may never be ill on a weekday?" Aster said, with a tease in his voice.
"Not without my permission."
And so the banalities continued. Cassia closed her eyes, and tried to fall asleep.
"Can I ask you something?" Cassia said.
Molly looked up from the living room computer. "Sure," she said. "What's up?"
Cassia hesitated. Aster was changing into dry clothing in the guest bedroom, but she still lowered her voice. "My mate has been… he has changed, since I've known him. I was wondering if you knew something of it."
Molly frowned, swiveling away from the computer with a squeak. She had been checking the status on the speed dating website, and the numbers weren't too shabby. Samuel always told her not to work too much in the evenings, but she couldn't help it. "No, I don't really know what you mean."
"You must know," Cassia persisted, crossing her arms. "He has been this way since our arrival here."
"Are you saying I did something to him?"
"I don't know."
"Look, I get that you guys are having problems, but I don't have anything to do with that." A flare of guilt rose inside her, and she turned back to the screen. It wasn't entirely true. But when she'd come to Aster last night, he hadn't told her to go away. He'd let her sleep in his bed. Aster was just as much in fault as she was.
"He is… not involved, now," Cassia persisted. "It was different, before. He was very orderly."
"He was orderly?"
Cassia shook her head. "Not in your sense of the word. Orderly to us is… ultimate. It means noticing everything, being aware. Being caring about things." She was getting close to giving up her authoritarian monotone, to sounding animated. Her hair was frizzing up, and she kept combing it down.
Molly leaned back, narrowing her eyes. This girl was taking the blame game to a whole new level. "I don't think this big change in him is because of me," she said again. "Maybe it's because of the artificial nerves thing. I mean, not being able to walk? That's got to mess you up."
"Aster is resilient. But somehow now he is just lifeless."
The hallway floorboards creaked. Molly and Cassia both turned their heads, too fast for Aster to roll back into the room. He looked at Cassia.
"There is clothing for you on the bed," he said.
Molly didn't need to watch this, but she did, and she wanted to. Cassia muttered a thank you, but Aster was already wheeling away.
Molly knew what was supposed to happen. She would ask them both politely, tonight or maybe tomorrow, to find their own place. But somehow she couldn't. The excuse she'd been giving herself was that Aster was too important to the company to lose, but even to her own ears that was pathetic. He didn't need to live with her to work for her, and if he and his girlfriend- his girlfriend- kept travelling like After said they would, that was fine. She had Samuel. It was going to be fine.
But somehow, that night, she found herself staying silent.
There was a rectangular plastic package sticking out from under the bed. Dr. Moskowitz had bought those for Aster from the pharmacy. Cassia was pacing the house, the way she did when she was thinking hard, and she saw it.
"What is that?" She wanted to know.
"Nothing. Just sit down and stop making me dizzy." Aster was on the bed, legs splayed out, studying the paper on CRISPR that Dr. Frantz's had printed for them. "Just sit. You also like to think when you sit."
"That's a different kind of thinking." She sat on the edge of the bed, planting her hands on the blanket. "Aster, come on."
When he studiously ignored her, she cleared her throat. "You heard what I said before, didn't you?"
"Yes, Cassia. I'm crippled, not deaf."
"Well, what I said is true."
He looked up, and she was serious. "It's like you don't care about anything."
"I don't. Now, can you please let me read this?"
From the kitchen, the sink turned on. Aster kept his eyes on the printed letters, until he felt the release of weight from the bed. But his mate only got as far as the door.
"Do you think the selection process made a mistake, putting us together?"
Aster raised his eyebrows. Cassia had her back to him, facing the door. She sounded like she was afraid to say it.
"The selection process has almost no chance of making a mistake," he said, but it was an empty, robotic statement.
The truth was, he didn't know Cassia very well. They'd met a few times, had the traditional pre-bonding sex. Then all the training for this mission started, three months of grueling physical training, cramming in a lot of data, and being constantly monitored.
They'd had a short week together, at the beginning. It was what filled much of Aster's organic memories. When he thought back to that time, he never pulled out stored memories, because those were too linear, too devoid of smell and touch, devoid of the feel of her in his arms. In that week he'd learnt everything about her. Her passion for teaching her history, her confidence and the way she got shy when he kissed her. Her soft skin, her silky white hair.
It wasn't enough. A week wasn't enough.
"I really must finish this paper," he said. Cassia shrugged, pulling open the door.
A sudden shiver overtook him when she left. It was like he was being seized violently. It was then that his right arm fell slack against his outstretched leg. He tried to make a fist. When he couldn't, he found himself forming her name, but he swallowed it.
His heart began pulsing quickly in his chest.
∆∆ To be continued…