Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reckless Behavior: Chapter Five

The singles event ended with the same exuberant vibe that it had started out with. Everyone had had a good time, nobody harassed anybody for a kiss, and there hadn't been any allergic reactions of any sort. Basically, one of the better events. The participants were gone and the cleaning staff were putting away glasses by ten.

It was from one moment to the next that Molly found the room empty of people. When she'd shrugged on her coat and grabbed her laptop and papers, she found Samuel waiting on a couch at the other end of the lounge, watching her. He stood up, and crammed his hands in his pockets.

"Hey," he said, coming toward her with a shy smile. "Tonight was great." He slid her arms beneath hers, resting them on the small of her back. "You know, I'm... Really happy we're doing this together."

Molly squeezed him tightly. He could be a jerk, but he could also be… this. Sweet. "If you're apologizing, I accept."

"I am, I… I really want this to work out between us. I do." He pulled her into a sway, so they were dancing in tandem to unheard music. Molly rested her head on his chest, pensive. 

"What? Is there something wrong?" He said.

"I kissed Aster," she said. "You should know. It didn't mean anything and if still doesn't, I promise. I just thought we should start again with full disclosure, you know? No secrets between us." 

She waited, holding him tight to feel his reaction. Samuel let out a deep breath. "Okay, then. My turn?"

"Um, yes. Right."

Another deep exhalation against her cheek. "I said I slept with some people, remember? Three times. It was short with each, and I have no connections with any of them. It was around August." That was when they'd had a big fight about the business. Molly tensed but stayed silent. She need to hear this. 

"The first was Jenn."

Molly pulled back to look at his face. "Jenn Collins, my best friend friend, Jenn?"

Samuel squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes, that Jenn. It was just a short thing, really, we were both drunk-"

"Oh my god, Sam." She shook her head, too dazed to get angry. But it was coming.

He folded his arms. "You were with someone, too."

"Yeah, but we only kissed! And come on, Jenn is one of my closest friends!"

"Friends, plural? Please. You're only mad because she's the only girl you talk to."

"Don't you go there." Molly's voice had a tremble in it.

"Anyway, this happened two months ago," Samuel pointed out, his hands finding his pockets again. "You must of kissed him, what, in the last two weeks?"

"It's not the same." Molly felt her eyes widening. The anger was bubbling up.

"I thought we were starting over," Samuel said. "Coming clean! That's what you said!"

"I did."

"So… Do you want to hear who else?"

"No. Not really."

Samuel shrugged, probably not sure what to say next. He hated when she got upset suddenly, even with good reason. How they'd stayed together for so long was beyond Molly. It seemed like he was always exasperated with her. Honestly, sometimes Molly exasperated herself.

"I'll be waiting outside," he said with an I-give-up smile.

Molly couldn't find it in herself to match his upbeat tone, fake as it was. "Yeah," she said. "I'll just check if we left anything behind."

They parted ways. She found some flyers by the bar, the table number holders she'd ordered from Amazon, and someone's scarf. She also came across Aster, sitting by a stripped-down table in the corner, taking down long gulps from a glass. The bottle in front of him was halfway filled with warm brown liquid, and the label had been ripped off. He was staring straight ahead, nails tapping on his cup with a plink plink sound. It wasn't clear if he saw her standing above him.

Molly cleared her throat. "So, did you…"

Did you find your girlfriend? Are you still taken? Is it fucked up how attractive you are right now, those mournful eyes and long, thin fingers?

Aster took a sip. "No." 

Molly nodded, clasping her hands, and rocked back and forth on her heels. When he didn't elaborate, she said, "What are you drinking?"

Aster looked up, and blinked as if surprised that she was still
 there. There was buzzing coming from behind him, though Molly didn't see any flies. "What you would really like to know is why I am alone here with a bottle of alcohol, instead of with my mate."

"Yeah, pretty much. What happened?"

"Cassia left," he said, pouring himself another glass. He looked up at her with a crooked smile. "I enjoy this beverage. It has a pleasant warming effect." He kept pouring even as the glass got full, and a puddle formed on the table. The whining, metallic sound got louder.

Molly leaned forward as he downed his drink. "Aster, are you… buzzing? Is that coming from you?"

"Yes!" Aster grinned. "That means that I am intoxicated. I should not be getting intoxicated."

Molly rolled her eyes. Aster didn't give out smiles like that, so he had to be really wasted. "Come on. Samuel's waiting outside with the car."

Aster backed up, knocking into the liqueur cabinet. Bottles rattled.

"Oh, for God's sake," Molly said. She just wanted to be home. She came around and pulled his wheelchair out from the table. Aster grabbed his wheels, but his fingers were shaking, and not like a shaky old man. It was as if he was being electrocuted.

"Are you okay?" She said, watching as he lifted up his jumping fingers, as if holding them to the light. 

He laughed. "Myself's artificial nerves do not appreciate alcohol."

"Great. That's just great." She took his handlebars again but with more of an urgency, and pushed him across the carpet. His legs were jumping, too, but Molly really became alarmed when his head drooped onto his chest. He picked it up a moment later, disoriented. She hurried down the hall outside the lounge. They were at the back of the hotel, so the door to the parking lot opened to a set of concrete stairs framed with manicured bushes.

"Shit." Molly peered into the lot, searching for Samuel's car. "Maybe we should just go around to the front."

Aster's head fell again. She shook his shoulder to wake him. Ten seconds later, a bright light flooded them both. Samuel's headlights got closer, then veered left. He stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and got out of his car. Looking just as ready to go as Molly did, he sprinted up the stairs, and scooped up Aster below the knees. He was left waiting, bent over, when Aster didn't slide a hand over his shoulder. "Come on, man," he grunted. "Give me some support here."

"He's drunk," Molly said, hovering behind them. She would carry Aster if she could, but he was a more than half a foot taller than her, and probably weighed a lot more than she did. Samuel was bigger than everybody, so he had little problem.

"Oh, fuck this." Samuel grunted as he bore Aster's full weight, shifting his grip to support his back as well. Aster slumped against him like a doll. The buzz was unmistakable now, getting more insistent by the minute.

Samuel carried him to his car, lowering him into the back seat. When Aster swayed unsteadily, Molly made a quick decision and slid in beside him. Samuel retrieved the wheelchair form the top of the stairs, folding it with some effort and stowing it on the front seat.

Molly buckled up and leaned back with a deep sigh. She enjoyed being in a dark car at night. Beside her, Aster fumbled with his seatbelt. His fingers were vibrating as if he was on a massage chair. Samuel had already put the car in gear, and they were halfway out the parking lot.

"Here," Molly whispered. She leaned over to buckle him in. Aster was sheet white. God, she hoped he wouldn't throw up in Samuel's car. That would do nothing to improve the relationship between the two of them. 

"Are you okay?" She asked.

Aster nodded, but looked at his hands with a grimace. The rice passed in silence.

"What's that noise?" Samuel eventually asked.

The car was dark. Molly pressed her hands around Aster's to still them. 

"It is I," Aster said. His speech sounded more warbled then ever. God, he was drunk. "I have artificial apparatuses on the interior and exterior of my body."

"Like prosthetics? Why are they making noise?"

"Because I have consumed alcohol." Aster squirmed away from Molly, but only to sit on his hands.

In the rearview mirror, Molly saw the glint of Samuel's drawn brow. "You aren't going to explode, are you?"

"Into small, wet pieces that will adhere to your vehicle's interior," Aster said. He seems to be more alert now. "Let the records show that I have warned you."

"And, we're here!" Molly tried not to sound too excited, and got out of the car. A small light brightened her front porch, and the bushes rustled in the wind. Samuel helped her get Aster out of the car and into his chair, and then drove off without a word.

It was dead quiet as Molly fumbled with her keys. Aster waited for her to go inside first, as always, and then followed after. He went straight to the bathroom, slamming the door behind him, and Molly sank onto the couch to let the night's events sink in. She heard the shower turn on to full blast.

She thought about Jenn, and Samuel, and her eyes filled with tears. Why did love have to be so complicated?

 She'd always had the same fantasy: simplicity. While other people loved TV shows with tortured romances, where the love interests broke up and got together and broke up for seasons on end, Molly liked the simple ones. Like Chandler and Monica on friends. Minimal drama, and no one breaks anyone's heart. Why couldn't it be like that?

It was forty-five minutes later that Aster emerged from the bathroom. He was barefoot and bare-chested, with a towel draped over his thighs.

He rolled up to the couch. Molly noticed that he'd shaved with the razor she'd set out for him. There were a few nicks on the edge of his cheek. He smelled fresh, like her coconut shampoo that he seemed to have taken a liking for. "You did an excellent job tonight," he said. The vibrating had mostly calmed, and she barely heard the buzz anymore.

Molly heaved herself upright. "Thank you," she said wearily. "And I'm… really sorry about Cassia. What are you going to do?"

Aster looked away. "I do not wish to... Discuss. I will formulate a plan tomorrow." He looked at her like he wanted to say more, maybe stay in the living room because she was giving off waves of sadness, but he turned and headed to the spare bedroom. 

Molly listened for the creak as he transferred to the bed, and then for more creaks as he shifted his weight. Soon she only heard the incessant ticking of the living room clock, the little purple one over the computer. She pulled out her phone and spent an hour checking emails and Facebook, replying and commenting to people she didn't care about. When she found her eyes closing, she peeled herself off the couch to get ready for bed. 

The bathroom mirror reflected back smeared mascara and drooping eyes as she brushed her teeth. She stripped, dropping her clothes in a pile at her feet, then leaned over to scoop them up because it was easier for Aster to maneuver if the floor wasn't cluttered. She headed down the hall, and the floor creaked right as she passed the guest bedroom. She stopped, listening for his even breathing, but couldn't hear it. He was awake. The buzzing had quieted to a low drone.

Molly  cracked open the door. Light spilled over the hardwood floor. "Aster?" She whispered.

There were no blinds, only embroidered lace on the window, so the room was a palette of greys. The dark silhouette rustled about the covers. "Yes?" Aster said.

She closed the door behind and took a measured step toward him. His eyes were closed. Somehow Molly had expected him to be one of those people who slept like a corpse, especially because of his legs, but Aster was on his side, his lips slightly parted on the pillow. "Mohy?" he mumbled, perfectly still.

Molly sat on the edge of the bed, next to his calves. "I- I just wanted to say that-" she gave a short, nervous laugh. She had goosebumps under her oversized Buffalo Bills t-shirt. Aster waited, or maybe he was already asleep. He had one arm under his neck, and the other hanging over the side of the bed.

"I don't really have anything," Molly said, and for some reason, her eyes filled with tears. "I'm just so… lonely, Aster. Some days I'm just so lonely."

Aster stirred, and she realized he was adjusting his legs so he could sit up. She couldn't see his face, only the form of him, unfamiliar but comforting. He sighed, and put his arms out for her to fall into. His chest was warm, and when she curled up against him he rested his chin on her head. "Do not cry," he said, more like instruction than consolation, and Molly laughed despite herself, sniffling at the same time. When he finally released her, she felt a head rush. Maybe she'd drunk more tonight than what she'd thought. But thinking about being alone tonight made her skin crawl. Aster was still sitting up,watching her, a hand on her folded knee, rubbing gently, almost absentmindedly.

"Can I stay here tonight?" She said. "Just tonight, I promise."

It was unnerving, not being able to see his reaction. But Aster leaned over and kissed her forehead. "Of course," he said. He settled back under the blanket, but held up a corner for Molly to slide into. It was bliss. Aster lay on his back this time, straight as a rod, and Molly felt guilty. He was a man, after all, who now had a woman in his bed. Molly inched closer, very cautiously, until she was right beside him. Warmth from his body radiated between them. She waited and felt him slowly relax, in slow bits as his chest rose and fell. When he was almost asleep, she slid a hand across his collarbone, and brought her legs up near his. Sleep came quickly, after that.

∆∆∆

Reckless Behavior: A guide to the early Twenty-First Century

Chapter Six: Sex and Society

…because each member of the opposite (or same) sex is a potential sexual and/or life partner, much of media and advertising is focused on finding 'love.' There is pressure on every adult individual to be paired, and to seek out that pairing.

Even already-coupled pairs may experience jealousy, since there is no guarantee that their partner won't come across a superior mate. This concept still lingers in our society, despite the current selection process that pairs mates with 99.993% accuracy. This is due to an ancient biological imperative that drives us to seek what we don't have, without realizing the value of what we've got.

∆∆∆

Cassia closed Croton's back door with a protesting squeak. It was nine thirty, and the sky was the color of a washed-out shirt. She was making as much noise as one would by deliberately crunching through the leaves, not that it made a difference. Croton was immersed an interactive two-dimensional game with his roommates, a 'video game.' Even out here, she heard the puta-puta-puta of machine guns and the squeal of gasoline vehicles. They wouldn't hear her if she yelled.

The grass was overgrown, and bare dandelions framed the peeling red fence. Cassia wedged herself through a space between the wooden slats. The neighboring home featured a garden with wilting plants, dying in the face of the approaching cold weather. A mossy greenhouse stood crookedly at the back,and she couldn't tell if the walls were originally tinted green, or if the glass was filmy. She slipped through the entrance and latched the door shut.

Finally, privacy. She released the upper layer of her Q-band, the part that wasn't threaded into her veins. She felt dizzy as her worldview diminished to a few shelves of overgrown potted plants and broken glass bottles. It was disconcerting, but she had been losing the use of her Q-band anyway. The connectivity of this century was through wires and an external Internet. There was no Web in the Earth itself yet, and her Q-band didn't like that.

There was only one way to find Aster, and that was through the manual bringing-together of their Q-bands. She could do it through a little-known trick that her brother had taught her when they were children. There was a technique people used during sex to get into their partner's head, apparently making for a thrilling experience. Cassia had scoffed at the thought when she'd first heard about it. Here, though, it would be useful. Now that she was sure Aster was nearby, she had to find him and explain about Croton. All the quicker they could leave this dirty, fume-filled era.

The only problem was that if Aster was wearing his Q-band while she did this, the signal would interfere with his artificial nerves. He'd probably get an electric shock.

She glanced down at her Q-band. She couldn't wait any longer, and neither could he. She would do this quickly. Oh, he was going to hurt. She would be very, very, quick.

There was a cracked blue chair in the corner of the greenhouse. Cassia tested her weight and sat down, because he didn't know what her body might do while bringing-together. She held her disconnected Q-band at eye level, delving into it and looking for Aster, not just her memories of him but his Print, the representation of him in her mind. It was harder, since her thoughts had to travel through her wrist, up her palm and fingers and into the black Band. When she had his face she pressed into her wrist, drawing the energy from her body that ordinarily charged the Q-band. The energy, finding no Band on her wrist, surged up her hand, gathering speed. 

She screamed. Aster's face wobbled. She plunged, falling from the height of a thousand Mount Everests, needles puncturing every pore. She landed with a fell swoop, as if a parachute had released, yanking her towards the wind. Motion ceased.

She was inside him.

Yelling, gnashing, burning from inside as he was hit with more electricity than the human body can withstand.

∆∆∆

The pain lasts two seconds, but is the aftermath that is hell. I shake and shake, the linger of that searing pain throbbing down my legs. I tremble even after my nerves stop singing, breathing so loud that it clouds other thoughts.

 I am prostate on a bed. I partially covered by a blanket, and wearing something soft on my midsection. There is a woman beside me. She was holding onto me for a long time, I can feel the memory of her long slim arms and fuzzy hair that grazed my left nipple when she shifted closer. I have awoken her. She sits upright, tired. She is concerned for me.

Thoughts are blocked again as humiliation, blasting and full, surrounds me. I do not panic when it comes because it is familiar, I know I have felt this was many times before. I try to discern why, but I can only focus on one section of my body while also juggling my mental responses, which I flip through now. A hundred million neurons fly down my spinal cord, where there is a jolt as they flip to my artificial nerves. Then the signal dies. I don't know where they were going.

Why do my cheeks flare with shame? The answer comes in the form of crude mental images. Something with my… penis. Quswàk, I have a penis.

My heart beats like a drum. The woman is gentle, saying tender things in Late English. I can't get to Broca's area, the language center, fast enough to to translate. 

The effect of the shock withers away. And I am thrown from this place like a pebble in a slingshot, here, and the next moment gone, gone, gone.

I am in…

In the...

Orange clay with a chip on the side, caked with soil. A spider crawled down the prickly stem. In the greenhouse. Smeared glass with a hairline fracture. Cassia was there. She was Cassia.

Glass crunched under her back as she rolled over. She was on the floor, and there was blood from her nose, from the honey-brown glass that scraped her cheek. She was crying, she already started before, and now she tried to stop. She doesn't cry ever but now she was. As though drunk, she rooted with scrabbling fingers for her Q-band, and as soon as it snapped back on, she could breathe normally again. She waited for the plants to stop spinning before she attempted to stand. Even here, in a garden, in a greenhouse, she could feel Aster's location. She was as much with him as she was here. 

And though she didn't want to find him yet, she staggered to her feet. Shards rained to the ground. She had to find him before his location faded from her mind. 

Unlatching the door, Cassia bared her face to the wind, and set out.

∆∆∆

He fell to the brink of blacking out, but didn't. As he caught his breath and started to see shapes and hear sounds again, Aster tried to remember where he was. The tip of his tongue tasted something warm and thick, something coating his lips and chin. Blood. 

Hands on his shoulders, shaking him. Molly's face came into view, mouth agape in horror. "Aster! Aster, what's happening?"

He raised his hand to wipe his mouth, cringing at the pins and needles that shot up his wrist. His arm came away with a gloppy smear, blood matting down the blond hairs there. Something had gripped him. He didn't know what.

"Did you.. grab me?" He said, sitting up slowly.

Molly slapped her chest, over her heart. "You just gave me a fucking heart attack! What the hell is going on?"

The memory of that jolt loomed large enough to still hurt, but he lifted his legs over the side of the bed, towards where his wheelchair sat. He kept the sheet around his waist. "I am alright. But please, did you grab hold of me?"

Molly was backing away, already off the bed. "No, I… I just shook you. I don't know what the fuck was happening but there was a fucking forcefield in here. I'm not crazy. I felt something." She was at the door, hand on the knob.

A forcefield? Aster felt like something had taken hold of him, every part of him, had reached deep in side and pulled. It couldn't have been Molly. He looked at her again, for the first time in real focus. Her hair was a lot larger than he remembered. The image sparked a connection. People in bed, hair spiked up for a few moments…

Cassia had done that dangerous sex trick. They were brought-together. Although he didn't feel any different now than before, aside from a pounding headache. 

His fingernails scraped at the edge of the mattress. How dare she? He transferred into his wheelchair and rolled past Molly, out the open bedroom door. She barely noticed him go. She was staring back at the surface of the mattress that he'd been lying on. There was a charred outline of his body where the green pastel sheet had been, and the smell of burning plastic. Tendrils of smoke rose from the stuffing of the mattress. Molly appeared to be in shock.

Aster headed straight to the bathroom to wash his face. All the lights in the house were off, and the computer's normally sky-blue face was black. Aster changed first, wrapping himself again in the sheet when he was done. Parts of it had holes, and it smelled of smoke, but he didn't have clean pants at the moment. He was just beginning to rub his chin when someone pounded on the door. 

Molly whimpered from the bedroom. Aster muttered obscenities under his breath, Late English ones, and went to answer the door. He wasn't yet telepathic with Cassia but he gambled that it was her, standing on the front porch.

He released the latched lock and rolled back. Whoever it was waited for a moment, perhaps stunned to be given the honor of letting themselves in, and then did so without any hesitation. Crisp autumn air greeted him, as did his mate. Her clothing, a white vest and pants, were fluorescently clean, meaning she'd self cleaned them recently. It was her skin that gave her away, soil caked to her dingy white hair, scrapes all down her cheeks and two perfect trails of blood coming from her nose. And this was all covered in a wet layer of sweat. Cassia never sweated.

He hated her for so many things, but he had never seen her more beautiful. Maybe it was their time apart. Maybe he had truly missed her.

When she reached down to hug him, he hugged her back, like they'd done when they'd first met and knew nothing of each other except you are my statistically proven, perfectly chosen mate. One day, we will love each other.

Then Cassia reared back and slapped him across the face. The sound was like a clean snap, diving through his ears and over his cheek. The force of it almost tipped him over, and if Aster thought he'd achieved maximum pain ten minutes ago, this stung all the same. Cassia was stronger than five naturally-born men. When her genes had been altered, her body had become strong, while his had stopped working completely.

Molly came into the living room, almost tiptoeing to the computer desk, where she could see both of them and retain a distance. She clutched her bathrobe against herself like it would protect her.

The first thing Cassia said was in Late English, and was presumably for Molly's sake.

 "You slept with her?" She practically spat.

Aster held his palm against his cheek. "What is wrong with you?" He said in Manghish. "You just roasted me alive and that's what you want to know?"

"Okay, that's it." Molly broke their locked stares by waving her arms. Her voice still trembled, but it was slowly gaining power. This was her home, after all. "Cassia- I'm assuming you're Cassia- come with me so we can get something for those cuts. Aster, wash your face on the kitchen sink." Something dark settled across her features. "And then you guys have a lot of explaining to do."

An explanation was exactly what she needed, so Aster had to find one fast. He shrugged and headed to the kitchen, where he turned on the hot water. His mind was reeling. 

There was the something called the Threshold of Absurdity. In connection to the obvious element here- time travel- Aster was not worried at all, since in this early part of the century quantum tunneling was absolutely absurd. If they would have traveled to a let period, though, they would have had to be more cautious. Aster was able to talk about his home in this era without lying, because he knew his true origins would never be considered. Case in point was Molly- she thought him an Irish 'hippie,' whose mathematical profession somehow enabled him to receive the latest technology. Aster had not aided this fantasy at all- it was completely Molly's doing. 

But now he'd maxed out Molly's Threshold. He couldn't explain the smoke and electricity in her terms.

As he wiped his face dry with a scratchy towel, he heard the women emerging from down the hall. He rolled out to join them.

Cassia had a piece of cloth sloppily taped to the side of her face. She sat down on the couch and didn't speak for a long time. Molly hovered by the doorway.

"I'm sorry," she said in Manghish, staring at her hands, which were folded in an orderly fashion on her lap. Her back was rod straight. It was the second thing Aster had noticed about her when they'd first met, her posture, after the perpetual questioning look that she had in her golden brown eyes.

"I didn't copulate with her," Aster said in Late English.

"Funny," Molly said,turning to go. Apparently she'd heard enough. "I'm getting such a feeling of déjà-vu."

"It doesn't matter," Cassia said in their native tongue. "We can't dwell on something so stupid. We just gotta do what we gotta do, and then we're out of this hellhole."

Aster reached for her hand and she snatched it away. "Isaid it doesn't matter now. I never said I didn't care," she spat.

Aster cocked his head. "Okay, well, what have you got so far? Made some friends, did you?"

"I already found the target and searched his home."

"You found Croton?"

"Yes! While you were fooling around with that wild-haired-"

"You mean that Croton is that guy at the bar? The one you were holding onto like a panting fangirl?"

Cassia folded her arms. She smelled like moss. "I was playing a part! I needed to infiltrate his house!"

Aster snorted. "I bet you slept with him too, to play the part."

Cassia shrugged.

Aster's hands dropped to his rims. "Quswàk, you..."

"Aster, I had no choice! I resisted for too long. If I messed this up, we'd never get through to him!"

Everything he wanted to say vanished, and he found himself shaking his head, over and over, lip curled in disgust.

"You were in bed with that woman," Cassia said. "It's Intent versus Action without Intent."

"Don't get academic on me."

They stared each other out in stewed silence. Finally, Cassia said, "What happened to you? Nerve malfunction?"

Aster nodded, dropping his gaze to his knees. They were bonier than they'd ever been. "Yeah. Waist down, can't move anything."

"Well, get on your back."

"What?"

"Get on your back." Cassia looked bored, like she wanted to get this over and done with. "Let me fix it. Do you need help lying down?"

"No." And certainly not from her. Under his mate's judging eyes, Aster gripped the sides of his chair and lowered himself to the ground, slipping down at the end. He flopped himself onto his stomach. The rug tickled his cheek.

Cassia got onto her knees beside him. "What kind of underwear are you wearing?"

Aster reached back and resettled the blanket. His cheeks burned. "Just do it," he snapped. He relaxed his neck, and felt the cold prick as Cassia scanned his artificial spinal cord with her Q-band.

"Just a little misplaced wiring," she said, totally calm now that he was nervous enough to be perspiring. "The tunneling messed up my Q-band, so I'm not surprised."

He swallowed hard as Cassia placed a cold palm on the small of his back to hold him still. He heard the buzz as she switched on her laser.

To be continued…






An update to The Best Man

First off, I want to say thank you a million times for all the wonderful, encouraging comments on the chapter I posted last week.  It definitely made me want to keep writing.  I didn't, but it made me want to.

This week I was debating between posting a super short chapter and a really long chapter.  So I went long.  Because longer is always better. Right, ladies?  Or maybe it's width that matters more.  Hmm.

/annabelle babbling

Chapter 2

Also, I've got a little surprise for you guys next week... but I've already said too much :)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Last chapter for All Of You

Hi everyone,
this is the conclusion of my little story! Hope you enjoy Chapter 19, thanks for all your support and amazing comments that never failed to make me smile. Have a wonderful weekend!
Lovis
TOC

Thursday, October 27, 2016

For The Love Of Not Walking Chapter 27

Hello my friends, here is another Thursday and here is another chapter of  FTLONW. Glad you enjoyed last week's chapter, thanks to all of you for reading and commenting. Here is Chapter 27 of FTLONW. Erin and Kieran are enjoying each other some more, making their weekend getaway well worth it and with it closing the deal on their relationship and love for each other. Hope you enjoy another steamy chapter and let me know if you do. Thanks for reading this story and making me very happy. You all mean so much to me,
Hugs Dani

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

In/Exhale Continues - Friday Concludes

Hey, everyone! So sorry this is later than I normally post. Things have been a bit crazy over here. My visit with the actual doctor was great, but the clinic didn't impress me very much... But that could be its own blog post so I'll get down to why you're all here...

I think some of you will be very happy by the old character who makes a cameo in this episode...

Previously on In/Exhale: Kai answers Martin's distress call, helping the boy to feel better about his situation by bringing him to rendezvous with the girl he likes, Heidi. Kai runs into Diane (now Madeline), the girl he lost his virginity to and who accused him of rape. Already fighting his dark thoughts all day, the run-in doesn't help. Both David and Renee become concerned when Kai doesn't show up for the ASL class and he doesn't answer his phone, so she goes in search of him.

This Week on In/Exhale: Kai drives around town, fighting his depression and finally ends up at a biker bar on the edge of town, the Hitchhiker. Drugs and alcohol mix and put Kai in danger, but an unlikely old friend shows up to help.

Coming up on In/Exhale: Saturday begins, featuring Kai's adventure in Omaha visiting Harbinger Clinic. Meanwhile, Dr. Miller drops by County House for Kai's records and uncovers some enlightening and disheartening facts about Kai's childhood.


February 9, 2001 - Part IV


I haven't had any time to write lately, so I'm a bit behind on things. Initially, I had hoped to post Friday a couple pieces at a time, because it's a really long, complicated day, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to do that or not... Hopefully this week I'll have some time to write and get things polished and so forth... I do have an idea of how the rest of the season will go (I may end it on a cliffhanger!), but S4 will pick up shortly after S3 ends...

Anyway, I'll just have to see how things go. Thanks to all who have stuck with us so far!

-CA

PS - Remember, if you've forgotten what Kai and his pals got up to in the first part of Season 3, you can read the "Previously On..." to refresh your memory. Or you can hit the updated Table of Contents to re-read any episode. Also keep in mind that I'm posting each complete chapter (day) on my blog once it's all posted here, so you can read them in their entirety if you prefer that format. I also accept comments (including anonymous ones) there if you prefer. Happy reading!

PPS - Obviously, it's Wednesday, not Monday. Just a reminder that I will be posting on Wednesdays from now on!

PPPS? - I AM still planning to post my blind story here. Just have not had any time to work on it either lately, but I'll let you all know when I'll be able to start posting it!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reckless Behaviour Chapter Six



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-"

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."

"Aster."

"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."

"Cassia-" 

"Fine."

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."

"Yes, ma'am."

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…