While we lay on medical beds in the chilled chamber, we were allowed to see the planet that would soon be our home. The hologram hovered above my eyes, a brown and red world streaked with dark blue water. Clouds spread like lace over the continents and, in some places, gathered into storms.
My heart rate sped up, its rhythm loud and urgent in the medical monitors. One of the med techs, a shape in my peripheral vision, leaned to check the readings. “Doctor, eir heart rate is increasing.”
“That’s normal,” the doctor called across the room. “Increase the flow of sedatives.”
“Gemina,” Anone whispered from the bed next to mine. She turned her face, blue eyes sparking as she reached out. I cleared my throat and stretched a shaking hand back. My dark hand clasped her pale one and held tight.
That was the hardest part of this, or one of them. One day on the planet, I would fully awaken to my memories, and I would remember the mornings when I woke up with her next to me, her lips curved in a gentle smile, the scent of honeysuckle and cut grass in her tangled hair. I would remember…and she would not be there.
“It will be okay, love,” she said.
Would I be born female or male? Would I identify there as non-binary, did their culture even have a context for my gender?
Anone had called it a grand adventure. She had always loved adventure. I tried to rekindle the enthusiasm—her enthusiasm—about this mission. We were going to become another species, to live from birth to death as one of them—something few humans had ever done, and none on this world. It was the leading edge of science, unexplored territory in the extreme.
This was her second time, but my first. The hairs on my arms rose and my loins tightened in fear.
I loved her. I would follow her anywhere.
Would we meet again on the planet? We weren’t supposed to. But we would be there for each other when we woke again here, on the research ship.
“Gemina, Anone,” the doctor said. “We have acquired the subjects for conception. We are ready.”
The holograms flickered off.
I turned from Anone to the gray ceiling.
One of us would make the transition before the other. The pattern imprint had to be made at the exact moment of conception. We would be born to that world, fully of that world, but we would not begin to awaken to our full selves until puberty. It was part of the experience.
I watched the doctor’s displays out of the corner of my eye. She tracked the gathering conception energy that would call a soul into being. My soul.
Cool sedatives flooded my veins, and I slept.
I was scything buds in the reef fields when the first memory of the other-dream appeared. Soft lips brushed against mine. Pale eyes flashed in a horribly round and pink face.
I stood rigid in the midday sun, water dripping from the razored backs of my forearms.
My family felt my distress through the mind-string of our bond. Two of my sisters came running, splashing shallow water in great gouts. They laughed and clicked their arms together when they saw my arousal. They sang caustic chants about the volatility of males in puberty.
That night in the family cave, I huddled in the burrow I had carved for myself away from my family. They had never understood my need for a space of my own. I quivered, my long carapace brushing tufts of silt from the walls of my burrow. I crossed my arms over my neck and my four legs over my underbelly, razor sides out in the protective X. I sank and let the warm water cover my waist. It was a comfort.
More memories came from the other-dream. Flashes of soft toes without chitin to protect them, curling into a sand that was harder than silt. Water of a sea, colorless under a colorless sky, except I knew it had a color called blue. The bitter taste of wrongly salted air.
I pressed my face into the silt and keened.
My mother came over to me. “Katchtan. Come, you are alone. Join the rest of your family.”
It was always her answer, to every difficulty. But the family bond had never offered me the comfort it had the others.
The next day, the visions interrupted me while I harvested the reef crops with my family. I felt the staccato rhythm of my four legs, and then the jarring overlay of two. And then my four again.
The word “spider” came to mind. Or “mantis.” I had never before felt revulsion at myself.
My aunts whispered it must be a phase, it would pass. My sisters taunted me that this was the form my mating-urge had taken, and warned I had best soon take a mate.
I could not tell them what I saw in my thoughts. I had tried to hide my wakening puberty for weeks now. I did not understand the mating attraction I felt around males more than females. I did not understand my desire to live as both sexes; making games and nonsense rhymes with my sisters, or gauging how far I could spit venom with my brothers. I could not tell them I saw dreams of another place. A corrupt member of the family would be cast off for the good of the whole.
Maybe my sisters were right.
In the reef fields, I ranged farther to brush my razored red forearms against the softer, browner arms of the females, to taste their scents. Some tasted of the wetness of rock, or the heat of a branch of sun-warmed coral. One liked my scent, and I followed her behind the rocks and we joined for my first time. It was an explosion of senses that my family felt and mocked and encouraged; and yet, it was not the same as the feeling from the other-dream. There was no inner wholeness. Joined to me, the female felt my disappointment and broke off, and she did not come to me again.
I retreated to my place in the silt.
The mid-harvest festival came and I determined not to let the other-dream ruin it. I hooked the extra razors of harvesting scythes to my forearms and whirled about the reefs with my brothers in great, arcing sprays of water. I danced the dance of the harvesters, and gulped cool air, and bellowed the harvest songs. Buds flew in all directions to hit the water, and younger children scurried to gather them up before the tide pulled the buds out to sea. It was forgetfulness.
I drifted from my brothers, needing to dance alone. I didn’t realize how far I’d strayed into other families’ fields until I brushed my razored leg against the razored leg of another.
I stopped, completely still.
So did he.
We swiveled our heads and appraised each other. His taste was familiar. Honeysuckle. And sunshine. And warm sheets.
I did not say it. I did not want to say it first.
“Gemina,” he said. The word came out gritty and wrong, but I understood it.
I remembered the gray-blue walls and the heart-rhythm of my soft body on a cool medical bed. In the other-dream, I turned to look at the one I had come to know in my visions as Anone. My ears rang with voices and the steady beep of medical monitors. Sterile tang sharpened the air. Above me hovered an image of a brown and red planet, streaked with blue.
The memories from the other-dream clicked into place in my reality. I was still myself. I had always been myself, Katchtan, though I’d feared I had been invaded by another in these last weeks. But I had been born here, a soul from the other-dream. And now the rest of me was awakening.
“Anone,” I said.
We stared at each other.
I felt my mind reaching to hers—his? And felt his reaching back. It was not something I could have stopped, or even tried to stop. The connection with my family faded, the sense of their heightened interest growing dim. Anone’s thoughts wrapped around mine and mine around his, a dizzying rush of colors and smells and memories, both real and from the other-dream. Both sides of one perspective.
I skittered sideways—and Anone echoed my steps—before we sorted our thoughts again. But the bond was there. It was much stronger than it had ever been with my family. I couldn’t look away from him.
I heard the calls of my brothers and sisters as they ran up behind me, wanting to see the female I had selected.
They slowed when they saw Anone, the male, and then stopped.
My heart beat in tandem with Anone’s. Our breaths moved in sync, and I tasted the iron of our fear. But we would not die from this. Not now, when we had first found each other again.
Anone edged to my side so we could stay in sight, and on that pivot, I turned to face my family.
“It will work,” I told them. “I will not die. It is a true and stable bond.”
My family swayed with their pain and fear. They clicked their arms together in despair, and spite, but I didn’t feel it through the bond. The family bond was gone. One by one, my family turned and started back to their own fields.
Anone’s family came moments later, and it was much the same.
We were alone.
“I remember the other-dream,” I told him. “I want to be with you.” I could already feel the quickening in my body, the releasing of the chemicals that would strengthen me into full adulthood.
“We will not have children,” he said. “We will have no family of our own. No real family bond.” He eyed my body frankly, as a male eyes his chosen female.
I shrank. I wanted to soften the obviousness of my maleness, to show that I was not fully what I appeared to be. But I felt his approval, and pleasure. And soothing, through the bond. He understood.
I stopped shrinking and eyed him back. He was taller than me, his neck long and slim. His flat face shone iridescent red in the sunlight, his dark eyes glittering like rock gems. White stripes slashed like lightning down his neck to his gleaming red-black carapace. He was nimble and agile where I was broad and strong. He was beautiful.
“I have memories of a different sort of body,” he said, and shifted uncomfortably.
“I, too,” I said.
After a moment, he said, “It will work.” And that was that.
We left the coastal village and headed inland. The soil became rockier, with tufts of puffy grass and more rock scuttlers darting between the grasses than we had ever seen before. We ate wild from the buds growing in and around the river. At night, we dug our burrow by the red rocks that lined the banks and spat the circle of venom around us that would ward off inland predators. We had only heard stories of doing such things, and it was a few laughing tries before our circle looked like a circle. We joined at night and found a way past the physical awkwardness.
We both matured in those days, a long stretch of days, into fully fertile adults. We had nowhere to expend our seeds, and so the intensity of our bond grew painful with the unreleased pressure.
“Biology,” Anone said, and it made me snort. It was the sort of thing he would say.
We were chased out of the villages we tried to enter. We were defective, and all there knew we would soon die. Better we not contaminate the minds of their own.
The pressure in my mind and body grew worse.
“Maybe we should try to take other mates,” I said. “Maybe we should try to undo the bond and each make our own mating bonds, with females.” But I only suggested it because we both knew that neither suggestion was possible. A mating bond could not be reversed.
We were walking beside another river, another purposeless trek but for the company of each other, when we came across an older male. His carapace was dusty and cracked in places. The edges of his mind were contained; he was mature but had matured without a mate, and so he was alone. We marveled that he had not gone completely insane.
“I am Osaske,” he said. “I walk the rivers.”
“Then join us,” I said. “Walk with us.”
Osaske resisted at first, the razors on his legs jutting out as if we were predators to ward against. But then he shivered a sigh.
“Fine,” he said. “If you are good company, for as long as you last. I can see you have little time.”
So he walked with us. Osaske told us of his childhood in an inland village, and of his many brothers and sisters. He had wanted to mate, but his chosen female had not chosen him. It happened sometimes. There was almost always another chance, but Osaske had chosen late, and in his desire for the mate who spurned him, he had begun to mature.
“And so I contemplate my bitter aloneness,” he said.
I spoke about the female I had joined with, but not mated. Anone recounted his handful of attempts to join, which had all ended in spectacular, embarrassing, failure. We rocked with laughter.
One day at sunset, the inland predators rushed us before we had spat our wards. Their low, black bodies whipped barbed tales and razored legs. They bared their fangs and screeched cries that made me want to curl down and protect myself. Anone and I spat venom at them and threw rocks, but it was Osaske who rushed out to fight them. He darted around, always just out of reach, then lashed out to cut the soft spots behind their heads with his razors.
“Practice,” he said when it was done. We looked at the cracks on his carapace with new understanding.
That night we celebrated, dancing to the song of thankfulness for life.
As the days passed, we began to feel Osaske’s mind with our own. We were walking beside the river when Anone first noticed it.
“Osaske,” he said. “Do you feel the family bond between us?”
Osaske stopped. I could taste, with Anone, the tremor of his hope, his pent up pain. I could taste it, without touching him. His attention spiked and he reached mind-strings toward us. His reaching strengthened our tenuous family bond. Osaske flooded with a joy that sent my own heart soaring.
“Family,” he said, his voice reverent. “But how? I am not your offspring. You cannot have offspring.”
“The pressure within myself to produce children has faded,” Anone said. “It is not gone, but it is growing more bearable.”
It was, I noticed, also lessened in myself, but not quite as unbearable as Anone said.
Anone glanced at me, sensing my reserve. “But it is less, Gemina. Family. I don’t know how, but maybe we can have family. Maybe we can live, we can all live. We can live and thrive on the living.”
His joy pierced my misgivings and from then on, we sought out the trails of those who walked alone.
We found more in the next two years—another male, and a female who had been badly injured by inland predators. We fought off the predators and spat on her carapace to seal the wounds. These new companions traveled with us long enough to begin to family bond.
And it was a family bond, though we did not know how it was possible. We could only think that we had never heard of defective adults travelling in a group before, and so maybe it was natural. The bond was as if Anone and I were parents, and the others, not mate-bonded themselves, were our children.
Anone moved with ease now, though I still moved stiffly. The pain from the pressure to expend seed did not occupy all of my thoughts, but it was far from gone. While our family talked and laughed and gathered bulbs to store in nets on our backs for the weeks of rain, Anone watched me. When we joined, it was with a ferocity of knowing. We had a family bond, but as we knew nothing of how it had come to be, we knew nothing of why it had cured Anone and not me. We did not know how to fix it. Our time together would not be much longer.
“Maybe you can mate with Ikara,” Anone said. He spoke of our time-adopted daughter.
I shuddered and hunched in on myself. “I am for you, Anone. I cannot even feel the joining rush when I think of another. Only with you.”
“Maybe you can pretend—”
The next year, we added two more females to our family. Anone tried to persuade me to join with each, before they had bonded with us.
How could he think that I would join with another? I still had the memories of our other lives in the other-dream, but they were second to the immediacy of the moment. How could he not see that I loved him? Him, as he was.
I told him so.
“Of course you do, and it should not mean your death.”
I grew peeved and began to sway, clicking my arms in discordant rhythm.
“Gemina,” Anone pleaded. “I cannot live here if you die. There will be no more family.”
“You care too much about the family. You are more bonded to the others now than to me.”
Even so, I felt him as strongly as ever. In the balmy, inland nights, our joining was as intense as ever. We forgot ourselves in those moments of warmth and musk, the white flares of night insects rising from the bushes to form a halo of moving stars. But the afterward had begun to seem hollow. There was less of us, and more of me and him.
One night, I lay exhausted from our joining, shaking from the pain of the pressure. It was always worse after the joining.
“I am sorry, Gemina,” Anone said. “I am sorry it brings you pain. But if you would just take a female for your mate—”
“Are you so eager to be rid of me?” I asked.
I felt his hurt and groaned as it echoed inside me.
“I love you, Gemina,” Anone said, “and that is why I ask. I want you to live, and be with me. I need you.”
In the other-dream, Anone had talked me into coming to this world. She had needed my passion for adventure to flow with hers. I could have just put myself into cold-sleep on the ship and waited for her to be done on this world. I should have done that.
We were close enough now in our anger and hurt that Anone sensed the thought, and my bitterness from it.
“Are you sorry we’ve come?” he asked. He tossed his head in a haughty motion. “You shouldn’t be. I am not. This is the experience of a lifetime, of many lifetimes. Look at this family we’ve built. Look at what we have discovered.”
“I am here, Anone,” I cried. “And I am not that person in the other-dream. Not here. And I hurt. And I cannot take a mate beyond you. I will die from this.”
Anone, at last, acknowledged my condition by saying we needed a permanent home. He found an unclaimed stretch of river with an abandoned dwelling cave nearby. The cave was not optimal, but I watched as the family carried rocks to build up the mouth and dug a communal burrow of silt from the seep of water inside.
In a corner where the light didn’t touch, I made a burrow of my own. It took me all of one day, as I could only dig a short time before I had to rest. I told Anone I needed my separate burrow because of the pain, that sometimes I trembled and did not want everyone to feel it. He knew it was a lie.
He watched me, hurt swaying his shoulders. The family, strangely bonded as we were, felt some of this hurt, but it was not quite the sharing of a normal family. They began to cluster tighter around Anone, and watched me with suspicious eyes.
“We could have had children,” I told Anone one night in the cave, after a long day’s wading up the river for harvest. It would be another season yet until our cultivated buds took to the river reefs. Anone sat by my burrow in the dark, eating a bud and urging me to eat.
“In the other-dream,” I continued, “you said it would be too complicated. You wanted the experience of this. We could have been a family.”
“We decided that was not what we wanted,” Anone said. Cave water had been dripping slowly above him and now he shook himself off, spraying droplets. I flinched as some of them hit my too-tender face and neck. I sensed the wince of Anone’s apology, though it was as if from a distance. The feel of the bond, or maybe the feel of me, was growing fainter.
“We can still have a family,” Anone insisted. “We will have children, as many children as you want, when we get back.”
“To get back is to die, Anone. I don’t know how you can do that, to die in one life, then die in another, and another.”
All that I had felt, in the last weeks and years, came surging up. Some strength returned to my arms, if only in my need to express myself. I pushed up to face him.
“This is why we weren’t supposed to be together here,” I said. “Something went wrong, and we met, and I thought it would be a good thing. Before we came, I had hoped for it. I wish now it had never been.” I let out a soft keening. “I let you be everything, Anone. I never wanted any of this. Just you. Just you.”
I huddled back into myself. Pain crept up the razors of my legs, shivering me of its own volition.
“Gemina, we’ll work it out—”
“No! I can’t work at it anymore. You aren’t what I need anymore. I need to be...I need to be myself.”
And with the realization and the words came a sudden, unexpected release of tension. My legs spasmed out from their protective crouch, and I moaned in what was at once agony in my muscles and pure relief. Anone spasmed too, reeling drunkenly to one side.
“Ahh, ahh!” he keened. “Gemina! What have you done!”
I panted. I could not feel him. Anone was gone. The sting of that thought came as suddenly as the ending of the bond, and then began to fade.
There was loss, yes. But what I had spoken was true. Maybe the truest words I had spoken in years. I had loved Anone, but not the true bonding kind of love. I loved Anone because I could let her be my self for me, so I would not have to be myself on my own.
I stayed the night and felt the delicious cold of my own mind, alone. I had my own thoughts, for the first time in this life. For the first time in any life.
Anone, I said in my heart. You have given me the greatest gift, an understanding of myself. For that, I thank you.
I said farewell to what had been my family, who now keened and turned away from me much as my birth family had. Anone watched me, swaying with grief and a rage I could not penetrate and did not try.
He said, “If I wake in the other-dream before you, I will not have them put me back in the cold-sleep. I won’t wait for you, Gemina.”
I left and began my sojourn alone on this world. I wandered the rivers and gathered buds, and dug burrows, and warded myself at night against the predators. In the weeks of rain, I took shelter in caves and slept, and ate the hoarded buds I’d carried in nets on my back. I thought of Anone’s cave and Anone and my family, both of my families, and it hurt.
But as the seasons passed and I carried on, the hurt grew less. I encountered others over the years, and sometimes we travelled together, sharing friendship, though never long enough to bond. I had learned that mistake the first time. I would not repeat it, or so I vowed.
But one day, late in my years, I found a male whose taste was irresistible to me, and mine to him. He stood easy by the bank of the river, at home in himself. His carapace was weathered and scuffed but still strong, and shone the green-black common to that part of the inlands.
“I am Naska,” he said.
“I am…” I hesitated. I had been calling myself Gemina for years, but I was not Gemina. Not here.
The memories of the other-dream had faded with time and distance from Anone. One day, when I died on this world, I would wake up in the other-dream, to resume that different life. But here, I was of this world. I was who my mother had named me.
Naska waited, patient.
“I am Katchtan,” I finally said.
I was no longer sure of anything about the bonds, and was not surprised when we grew to share one. He had been alone, as I was, and was older than I; both of us past our fertility. As we went on, I learned from him that he was like me. He had never felt fully male, nor fully female. He had thought he was defective, and so he had never taken a mate.
“You are not perfect,” I told him. “But you are exactly you.”
He wove his head in a soft laugh. “And you are exactly you, Katchtan. Can we not be ourselves together?”
There was ease between us, a deep ease of shared company. And we no longer needed to have children, so there was no pressure in the bond. Or maybe there never would have been, with us as equals to each other; grateful, but not needing our bond to be whole.
We shared our lives and our selves. We travelled the rivers and streams, and gathered buds, and dug our burrows, and warded ourselves with our venom at night. We grew to know each other. And we joined together, sweet and gentle, under the white halo of insect stars. We knew love.
I woke, gasping a lungful of strange air. I rolled over and coughed, my arms cracking against metal bed rails. I cried out. And then I stopped and drew up my legs and smarting arms and shivered.
“Gemina,” a voice said. “Gemina.”
I looked up and the haze resolved into the face of a woman. Human, from the other-dream. I screamed.
I woke again.
“We have run your mind through your memories of humanity,” the woman said. She wore a lab coat, a different style than I remembered. A different doctor then, her black hair tied back, and too much makeup caked on her tawny skin. Decades would have passed since I’d last been awake here.
I looked at my hands, brown and fleshy. Panic spiked, and then faded in a dullness of meds.
I lay back. Gemina. I was human Gemina again.
The doctor leaned over me. “I am so sorry. The team that was here before me contemplated bringing you out prematurely. Your mission partner reported it was a cold and cruel world, but she said you would want the full experience of it. And the readings of your pattern were within limits. After a time, they evened out.” She hovered a moment, uncertain. “Your mission partner is not here.”
Anone. Then she had already awakened and exacted what she thought was a petty revenge in leaving me on the planet. Years ago, it might have been a revenge.
I jerked as the doctor’s other words registered. They would have taken me from my mate. Naska. Where was he now?
I huddled against myself in the coldness of the room. The med monitors beeped out the rhythm of my heart.
I had died. I remembered curling up to sleep next to Naska, his body warm and solid. His carapace, peeling with age, was papery against my side. As was mine against his. I remembered a tremor in the muscles of my lungs.
In the unfamiliar air of the research ship, I forced long, slow breaths.
In the following days, they asked for my memories. It was why I had gone to the other world, after all. To live, and see, and report.
I told them of my childhood, gathering buds in the village by the sea. I told them of Anone. They told me she had not lasted as long as I had; she woke twelve years ago and left.
The doctor was friendly, and then more than friendly. I understood her quiet attentions; the reason we were sent to the other world in pairs was not to meet there, but to have a mate with which to join when we came back. Shared experience helped, but physical pleasure was a powerful grounding.
I did not respond to her invitation, and was only polite to the young xenobiologist who listened to my memories. But e was quiet and reminded me in eir steadiness of Naska. E made some things more bearable to say.
I spoke to em of Katchtan, who had travelled farther inland than any of his village and had a family despite all warnings that it was not possible. I told em I had found love, because I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I could not deny my grief or the reality that I could not go back. I told em of Naska. And the whisper of my mate’s gentle touch on my neck; his scent, like deep earth in a comfortable burrow; his delighted laugh, when I splashed too fast through the river.
After a time, the xenobiologist turned off the recorders. E came around the desk and put an awkward arm around me. The touch of soft human-ness broke me and I wept.
In another lifetime, I might have grown to care for em. Both e and the doctor had genuine affection for me. I did not dislike them. But I had learned about myself on that world. I had lived.
There would be time, of course, before I wanted another. And I felt the loss of my mate like a razor through my heart. But I knew I would heal.
I had gone to that world because I thought I would lose Anone, and lose myself, if I did not. But I found myself there. I found what it meant to be fully settled within who I was. I learned to love myself, and I found a love with another that was not conditional.
I was whole.
This story originally appeared in UnCommon Origins.