I awoke from an erotic dream. His hands were all over me, sliding in and out. I had to catch my breath in the dark. I reached for him on his side of the bed, feeling fur, hearing a low growl.
“Rico! Get off the bed!”
A little yelp, a dog version of a grumble, and he jumped down. A second later, the phone rang at 0323. Fast scrapes on the parquet floor as Rico raced around to my side. I lifted the handset.
“Yes? And it better be good!”
“It’s not,” a stranger’s voice, a young woman. A frisson of jealousy shot through me. “This is Mercy General, Nurse Mayweather. It’s your husband; he’s been in an accident.”
Panic replaced jealousy. He called earlier, said he’d be late home from work. The erotic dream replaced his usual lovemaking when he came home late. Nice way for a girl to wake up from sleep. Sometimes, I hoped he would work late, just for the nocturnal apology. I didn’t expect this.
“What’s his name?” I asked, still unbelieving. Wanting it to be a mistake.
My heart dropped through the floor. “Where can I find him?”
“When he’s out of surgery, he’ll be my patient here in the ICU. Fifth floor, room 4.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“The doctor will, when you arrive.”
This couldn’t be true. Everything I knew about Terry defied what I was hearing. My vision blurred with tears; my jaw ached from grinding my teeth. I was having one hell of a hot flash. I threw the covers off, startling Rico. He yipped.
“Hello? You still there?” Mayweather asked.
“I’m on my way.”
Terry and I were married for the last two years, which had proven to be the happiest time of my life. People said we were the couple most likely to… fill in the blank. Whether it be models, be brilliant, win the lottery, last forever, die from sex, you name it; they said it. We were the couple that colorized most folks’ black-and-white world. Women wanted me, men craved him, but we rarely left each other’s side. That was all crashing down.
I took the maglev to the hospital. Around me, tired and vacant faces, some sipping coffee, others checking social media, all trying to wake up and get ready for another working day. I felt as empty as their expressions. My hair and face were a mess. I was in sweats and a leotard. When I wasn’t looking around trying to find solace, I was checking news feeds for accident information.
Flicking through the images, I nearly missed it. Backing up, the video made my jaw drop. Throwing it up on 3D, it multiplied, popping up around me as people bluetoothed in on the horror. An electric car, Terry’s car, burning, small explosions, like trapped popcorn behind melting glass. I clutched my leotard, staring at the inferno.
Firefighters cut a swathe of cool light through the flames. A corridor made of the wet street allowed silver-suited beings to approach the vehicle, magnesium-bright cutting lasers scything the driver’s door away, then paramedics levitating a smoldering body from the wreck. Only a glimpse before the burned thing entered a life-saving cocoon. I vomited bile into my mouth and shut it down, while others around me stared, fixated, hitting replay.
I started to tremble and tears poured from my eyes.
A woman gripped my arm saying, “Are you all right?”
“My, my…” I shook my head, unable to speak. My life was ending, flashes of his handsome face, strong jaw, gasping breath above me in bed. His sweat-slick, hard body against mine, now a husk. My imagination had not been as bad as his real condition. If they asked me, I would tell them to unplug the machines. He wouldn’t want to live like that, I know that much, and I couldn’t stand my descent into psychosis watching him paralyzed and in pain.
The train stopped, the door slid open silently, and the illuminated flooring directed me toward the hospital with emergency-entrance arrows flashing. I stared, frozen in indecision, wanting and refusing to see him. To remember him as he was. Never again to be. I leaped out just as the door was closing, clipping the bottom of my sweats. I stood on the platform as the maglev whooshed away, my legs shaking.
I walked toward the hospital entrance on wobbly knees. Upstairs in the lobby, paparazzi flashed their image devices at me and prodded me with questions. Security cordoned them off so I could enter the elevator. The orderly in there saw my face and pushed the fifthfloor button without a word. He hadn’t heard the story, but he was familiar with the hollow eyes and the caved-in face.
I zombie-walked toward the ICU door; the sliders scanned my identity and opened for me. I lurched forward, and Nurse Mayweather, leaning over the nursing station, saw me heading her way. She bustled around the station and headed to my side.
She was a dishwater blond, frumpy, short, in white scrubs. She grabbed me by both shoulders as if to shake me. It woke me from my daze. “He just slid through the wall from recovery. You can go and see him. Doctor will be in shortly. I must warn you, he’s, uh... disfigured.”
I slumped in her arms.
“A little help!” she cried out, trying to hold me up.
Two nurses grabbed me under the arms and lifted me onto my boots. Mayweather hugged me until I was steady enough to stand on my own, then she stepped back. Tears blurred my vision once more. Feeling sorry for myself, I looked for strength and the will to see Terry. I braced for being a widow at thirty-two.
Opaque sliding doors turned translucent as I approached, and the positive pressure forced air out of the room so bacteria couldn’t enter when they slid aside. All three nurses hovered around me as I stepped forward. When the doors opened, I saw him, or rather something, on the bed, more a lump than the beautiful man I once knew.
Both legs gone above the knee. The nurse followed my gaze and explained, “We had to take them; the accident crushed them.”
One hand and an arm mangled but in a steel frame, a tube with spears impaling the flesh, annealing bones and fingers in place. It was more like an alien musical instrument than a limb. The other arm looked normal. Even the skin appeared intact.
His torso and face heavily burned, blackened patches interrupted the beefy-red, blistered skin. His right eye was gone. The image shimmered, and I realized I was looking at him beneath a barrier, a sterile field. I began to fall again, but the nurses were ready and caught me. I couldn’t imagine this.
“I’m Doctor Valery Sharown, I’ve been taking care of your husband.”
I could not turn away from Terry to see the surgeon that entered behind me.
“Mrs. Townsend, I’m so sorry. The batteries in his car exploded, incinerating him. The paramedics had him on bypass fast enough to keep him alive. I’ve done what I can. He is young and strong. He will live.”
“This, this! This is not life!”
“We can do more. We have an experimental treatment, but we need your consent. The other option is to let him go. His circulatory system will no longer sustain him. We have him on bypass for now, but it is permanent.”
“And his brain?” I uttered, hoping the damage would decide for me.
“We have him in an induced coma, but he’s neurologically intact to cervical level five.”
That dashed my hopes. Sure, they could give him a synthetic body. He could even return to work, but never to my arms. I’d never feel the warmth, the passion. He’d be nothing more than a human dildo. All these thoughts flashed through me in an emotional blender, frothing with fried feelings and loss. Then a wave of guilt washed over me. How could I be so callous and selfish? I should be happy he’s alive.
“Before you tell us to pull the plug, listen to the experimental procedure I can offer,” said Dr. Sharown as she saw the resignation in my face. She’d seen it before.
Mayweather held my hand like a lover, like a daughter, “Listen to the doctor. Hear her out. I can help you through the process. She is thinking about you. Thinking about what is best for both of you.”
I couldn’t imagine a way out. Too stunned to object, I listened as Dr. Sharown laid it out. At first, I shook my head, but then I felt the nurse’s hand in my own. I listened more. I grieved, then I felt a glimmer of hope, and soon saw a small light in the distance. A chance. I couldn’t live without him. Not like this, no matter how much work they did on him. I’d rather die than live without him. I knew his situation was hopeless. Never a weak-willed woman, I also knew I wasn’t a feminist either. I waited too long for the connection we had, and Terry had become a part of me.
“Suffice it to say, I’m all in. Whatever it takes.”
Nurse and doctor exhaled at the same time, a sigh that bore opportunity and hope. We were perfect candidates. Our closeness, intimacy, the perfect match for the procedure. Perhaps the missing ingredient, the one that in its absence made all the prior procedures fail.
Six months later, we stood in front of the mirror in our bedroom admiring the result. He would go back to work on Monday, and I would shop while he was busy in the city. Tonight though, we’d go out, more of a coming out. A party at his partner’s house; the annual holiday event attended by staff and clients. Most couldn’t believe Terry had recovered from such a horrendous accident in such a short time.
He worked from home once he entered the rehab phase, but Terry wanted them to enjoy the surprise of seeing him in person for the first time since the accident. I brushed my long, light-brown hair, touched up my makeup, and examined my figure. I had joined Terry in his rehab, and it made all the difference, for both of us. Looking at him, it was as if the accident never happened.
We were closer than we had ever been. He was paler than before the accident, but it was winter and expected. Not much sun for either of us. Yet Terry looked just like he did when we first met, also during the winter. His partner introduced us. I fell in love with his strong jaw, short brown hair, and those green eyes. Now we shared one of mine. I lost a cheekbone, but we shared one of his. We shared a lot of things.
My legs replaced his, one of my arms too. His other arm was always the strongest, and now we shared that, and my skin was his. While he had my heart, I had his blood, and we shared veins. I could run my hand down his washboard stomach anytime I wanted. There was never a need to shout. We preferred to whisper into each other’s ears. It was sweet and loving, and we wondered if our friends and his colleagues would appreciate our inner differences and not just the outward. We were of two minds, but conjoined, we shared the best parts of each other. They rejuvenated even our sexual bits. Making love together or masturbating was hardly different, Mayweather and Sharown beamed with pride when we left Mercy General. Even our psychological changes had gone more smoothly than expected. So concluded the psychiatrist. We had come into ourselves.
I never felt more Veronica, and he never felt more Terry. Now, to share our unity with those who knew and loved us. We were jittery, the usual first-time fears. Fear of coming out, fear of misunderstanding, seeing people react to our changes. The surgery made sense though. For so long, they separated the conjoined, with ever more efficient and complex procedures. We were the first success to go the other way, and we looked forward to meeting more of our kind. To share the trials and joys that came with success. Yet, that’s for another day. Tonight, we party!
“You ready, Veronica?”
“As ready as I will ever be. You?”
“I can’t wait to see their faces!”
“Let’s do it, together!” and we laughed.
We hadn’t expected the reception we received. Well, perhaps we did, but it was a surprise. What is it they say, “The plan goes out the window the minute you see your friends?” You can say that again!
It was like we were apart once more. Standing back to back. He talked to the guys, while I talked to the girls. Except we had to be careful about our drink choices. “So what’s it like,” Andrea asked.
“Best sex ever!”
I never saw my friends blush as they did then. I knew what Andrea was asking but threw them a curveball, as Terry would say. Then, I reverted to answering what Andrea actually asked, while I measured the return of their usual complexions after all the blushing.
If we were the only oddity at the party, all the attention would be understandable, but the usual suspects were also present. The extra tall, the muscle people, not to mention the living chandeliers of flying fish bobbing and weaving in the air, all trolling for focus. Perhaps Terry and I were just being paranoid. We hadn’t been out in society for a while.
“Have you heard? You two are making a splash in the media. The military has been looking to contract Dr. Sharown and her team for special projects,” said Terry’s partner.
“No, we’ve been busy, but the application seems obvious. I just can’t see young recruits mopped up from the field getting along in conjoined bodies.”
“Isn’t it hard? I mean, no privacy.”
“Personal privacy hasn’t been a thing for over a century, Dirk. Someone is always watching. This is just the next level of loss. Still, we have a space within our heads we keep singular. Veronica and I don’t keep secrets from each other. We never did. It’s just the way we roll.”
“Can’t wait to see you on Monday.”
“Thanks! It’ll be good to be back.”
We strolled and sipped, hugged and winked, and enjoyed ourselves throughout the evening. Terry expected Dirk to pull us aside for a business discussion. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. What did, was some unanticipated flirting. Terry and I weren’t ready for that. It always happened before, but now we were suspicious. Erotics looking for a novel thrill?
We tabled that emotional roller coaster for now. Redefining who we are as a unit would take time and consolidation. Fatigue and the drinks had gone to our heads, and we retired early.
Over time, facets of ourselves began to fall away, and a conjoined personality emerged. One that was a stranger to us separately but was an evolving part of our unified nature. Independent interests and desires merged, catching us by surprise. Even scents, tastes, and our attraction to others had changed.
This is how xe (a he-and-she complex we called ourselves) met Stranta. She walked out of a crowd and approached us, wistful intrigue painted over her face. By her gait, xe could tell she was still fresh from the moon colony, a new hire. The quarterly meeting had adjourned, and xe suspected that Stranta was just introducing herself to her new boss. Xe could not be further from the truth; she wanted us, xe turned her on.
Just then, Dirk approached, clapping us on the shoulder, “Ah, I see you’ve met our newest sales rep, Stranta. So far, I’m very impressed with her work.”
A readout appeared on our HUD with a sales graph. Impressive!
“I’m Stranta, nice to meet you,” She thrust out her hand, which xe took and shook as she eyed us. Her grip was strong. The woman’s long, red hair slipped forward over one shoulder, and her green eyes probed ours, looking for more. Her skin was pale, almost translucent, sprayed with a light field of freckles, a true ginger-haired beauty. The smile was shy yet provocative. “The pleasure is mine. I’m Sam.”
Dirk’s eyes went wide. This was new. Xe either introduced ourself as Terry when in business or as Veronica when casual.
“Nice,” Stranta commented, “I like it. Definitely not on the company charter.”
“Part of our redefinition. Xe won’t be changing our name on paper, but xe think this name works better for us.”
As the silence stretched, Dirk grew uncomfortable and left to speak with other employees. The energy between Stranta and us remained, and the magnetism grew.
“I’d like to see what you’re doing and get an idea where you’d like to take the sales team.” “
Oh, I’m not a supervisor.”
“With your sales, you could be.”
Stranta blushed. It was charming or calculated to manipulate. Xe sensed she intended it as the former.
“Why don’t you follow me to my workstation, and I’ll show you what I’ve been up to. It’ll give you a clearer picture and define a possible direction for the sales team to pursue.”
“Lead the way.”
Xe tried not to look at her bottom as she walked ahead, being respectful, but she had this perkiness that was delightful, despite the heavier gravity of Earth. Xe and Stranta dropped to her floor in the tube lift, and she shyly looked at us, averting her gaze when xe looked at her. Stepping out into the cubicle farm, xe saw supervisor spheres, though empty, still floating around above the cubicles. Xe continued following her, but not having been down here in quite some time, the work area fascinated us. Then xe realized xe had lost sight of her.
A deep voice beckoned, “You coming?”
It surprised us to see a handsome man in a suit jacket, his half-turned back to us. “Where’s Stranta?”
“I’m Stan, Stranta’s other. This is part of the project I’m working on here. True binary. It’s done using personal lighting.” Stan switched back into Stranta, then flicked to Stan again. Two different couture, one a long work dress, sleek and elegant, the other a suit jacket and sparkling white shirt and tie.
“Personal lighting? And you’re wearing two layers of clothing, two hairstyles?”
“Exactly. See the electronic tag on my shoulder? I use it to send light cues to the overheads. It directs the lights to select color waves that highlight and track my appearance as I choose. I can even appear naked before you.”
Stan/Stranta suddenly stood before us in the nude. Xe averted our eyes, embarrassed yet curious, snatching peaks at the binary’s attractive body. Xe blushed, and Stranta reverted to her clothed self and higher voice. “Sorry boss. I didn’t mean to be so forward, but now I know you won’t forget!” she said, smiling. “Until now, full-spectrum lighting was static above us. My project uses a virtual prism to choose light waves to emphasize the appearance I desire.”
“And the applications?”
“Obvious,” answered Stan, “to alter appearance and avoid detection. Particularly effective for sales and client contacts. This technology fools cameras and people. I just have to alter my voice to coincide with my appearance. I’m still working on that.”
“So who am I looking at? The true you, or some version of you you want me to see?”
Stranta appeared, “These are both me! My true selves. By double clothing, a binary can be the best version of both themselves at will. This was my original design, just for myself. Then, I realized there are other uses for this technology. The project impressed my supervisor, especially when she saw my results, and she allowed me to move forward.”
“I agree,” xe smiled, and stepped forward, touching Stranta’s hair. “You are beautiful.”
It was Stan’s turn to blush. “Do you want to kiss me, Sam? You may, if you like.”
Our lips touched, Stranta’s making Terry’s forearm hair rise, and Veronica’s lips suddenly touching Stan’s, sending a shiver down our neck. Stranta had split the light! Showing different aspects of herself/himself to us at the same time. Xe held them in the embrace as we kissed, rising passion made clear by our increasing urgency.
When xe finally leaned back looking into their eyes, xe was the first to speak, “Remarkable. I’d always thought my next affair would be with another conjoined. Yet there are so few of us out there. I eventually gave up our search and became solitary. Yet this, you, thank you.”
We kissed again.
“I understand loneliness,” Stranta said, taking a breath, “ I understand how you feel. If this technology can bring folks like us together, then maybe there is hope for a better world. One that allows love rather than loneliness to rule,” Stan finished, with a depth of commitment that thrilled Veronica’s heart in Terry’s chest.
Sadly, our roll-out of Stranta’s technology alarmed the global government. The virtual prism defeated facial recognition; it protected criminals and allowed people to hide in plain sight. The new laws and lawsuits that followed nearly broke our company, but once we removed the product from the marketplace, they could not suppress the technology. Others sold it as a sexual aid, a dating application, and a spy novelty.
The Ultimate Suffice, as Stan called the product, was a boon to many lonely hearts, binaries, and others in the rainbow community. It helped the military. They used it to deploy their conjoined in exercises and police actions.
Xe sold our part in the company shortly after that. Together with Stan/Stranta, we bought one of those traveling gyrosphere homes and lived on the road. Celebrity lectures and consulting became a part of our lives, as much as writing and innovation. Members of the rainbow community sought our advice as the success of our relationship encouraged them.
One night, over a meal with our kids, we faced a new dilemma. A “You are Served” notice came in by drone. Our marriage was called into question by the judicial authority. We had entered into an arrangement not included within the law. Our success made us a target, a test case. Now under challenge.
“It seems the new liberal age is responding to our relationship,” Stranta said.
Veronica pulled an old poem from Terry’s head, “We have slipped love’s mortal coil, and ascended to a place, a marriage that stretches the boundaries of sharing.”
“I just wonder if this is a fiduciary challenge or a question of the boundaries of bonding?”
“Momma, what’s fiduciary?” Alyssa asked, lifting her head from her stew.
“Ask xer father...”
We knew we faced an uphill battle. We had not set out to challenge the status quo, but those folks made our love the problem. Our success and celebrity made us a target. When would it ever end? When will they just let us be? Love who we want, in whatever matrix of relation we choose.
Four heads shook in the shifting light, and the kids joined in.
DR. KEITH RAYMOND is a Family and Emergency Physician that practiced in eight countries in four languages. He lives in Austria with his wife. When not volunteering his practice skills, he is writing or lecturing. He has multiple medical citations, along with publications in Flash Fiction Magazine, The Grief Diaries, The Examined Life Journal, The Satirist, Chicago Literati, Blood Moon Rising, Frontier Tales Magazine, and in the sci-fi anthologies Sanctuary and Alien Dimensions, among others.
You can contact Keith via Email: firstname.lastname@example.org