<several rewrites later>
All he sees is blurred by milky white, and he can’t remember his own name. A voice: “Look. Well, just listen.” He can’t quite make it out.
“What… where am I?” The wrinkled old man in the wheelchair thrashes left and right, trying to see behind him, to name the force that pushes him.
“Listen. Calm down,” the doctor says with a quiet sternness. She walks around and kneels down close in front of him. She holds his shoulder firmly and presses gently on the bandage at his neck with the other hand. “My name is Dr. Kaliche, but you can call me Ivy. Do you remember me? You’ve just been through a very difficult surgical procedure.”
“Tell me about it,” the other man shuffling forward in a walker says. “Anesthesia is no joke. You’re gonna be fine, Wilt.”
“Host memory charge at full,” Ivy says to her lapel pin, standing up. “Half blocks are holding.” She runs her pen slowly along the collar of her turtleneck, looking back and forth between the two men, lost in thought for a moment.
They sit in the summery, evening calm on the massive, aging deck of what looks less like a hospital and more like a sprawling old farmhouse. It stands at the edge of the rows of corn, its old white paint half-peeled, soaking up the last rays of a sun lying sharp-angled on the horizon, the light punching through orange clouds, giving the rolling hills of carefully manicured fields a golden halo.
“Reminds me of back home in Ohio, ma,” says the old man in the wheelchair, with a shaky smile. He looks around, senses slowly returning to normal.
Ivy shakes her head. “I am quite sorry, Wilt. I am… not your mother. I am your doctor. You are in a safe place, okay?” She meets his watery gaze with a smile. While she kneels down and checks his pulse at the wrist, she nods her head toward Bram. “You remember Bram, right?” There is steel in her voice, willing him to remember.
“Oh, sure.” Wilt doesn’t sound too confident, but his smile stays. “I remember him. We were both in the war.” He gives her a thumbs up, a gesture more question than affirmation.
“That’s right.” Ivy glares at Bram, who’s slowly shuffling toward the railing to look out at the yard. “Do not push him too hard, Bram. He can’t follow your sarcasm until he recovers. And don’t push yourself, either. Remember, this is a very early test of our new spinal infusors. The process… the anesthesia… it all took a lot out of you two. Please let the medbot know if you need anything, and I’ll be just inside.”
“You’re the prettiest nurse I ever did see,” Wilt says with a wobble.
“I don’t think you half-remember me at all yet. But scans show you’re fine, Just enjoy the sunset.”
Bram grins. “Don’t worry, doc. I’ll take good care of him while you’re gone.”
She stares at Bram carefully as he wobbles his way from the walker into a chair. “Take it nice and easy yourself, old man.”
“I know, I know. Got it, got it.” Bram makes a pistol gesture with his hand and tries to shoot the frown off her face. “Pew! Pew!”
Checking the bandages on the backs of their necks once more, she checks the medbot with a touch and strides back inside. The sliding glass door closes with a squeak, and then there is only the sound of the cicadas. Bram smacks his lips. “Man, I could really go for a beer right about now.”
No reply from Wilt. He’s too busy staring at his hands like he’s never seen them before, turning them over, forgetting the palms again.
“A beer. Hey.” Bram pokes Wilt with a long, bony finger. “Do you even remember how the war started? ‘Cuz I feel like that part of my brain rotted.”
Wilt jerks out of his reverie. “The war?”
“Who even started it?”
“I don’t remember. We were so young when it started.”
“I feel like we had to have started it. We must’ve. Right?”
“So many years,” Wilt says, running his fingers down the purpled veins on the back of his hand. He doesn’t sound sad about the lost time, just confused. “How’d it all slip by us?”
“Would have been a lot easier on us if any of them scifi nerds had figured out any kind of FTL. Or hell, any half-working cryo. All that time in those damn buckets, shipping from planet to planet. It’s a wonder we didn’t all go nuts.”
As if finally remembering something, Wilt looks up and stares at Bram. “Do you remember the first time you saw one? I just remembered.” A shudder makes his wheelchair creak like a warning beep. “I just remembered it.”
“Yeah. I remember.” Staring out at the sunset, Bram runs a hand through hair that’s no longer there.
The warm evening air is still. The silence stands there between them.
Bram shuffles back and sits down in the wooden chair next to Wilt. “You look pretty pale, old man. Say, were you in the front lines on Jalitz?”
“Oh, hell no. I did get to meet some GIs that caught the worst of that mind ray thing, though.”
“I was one of of ’em. I was there. You know, turned out it wasn’t a mind ray.”
Wilt shrugs. “Does it matter?”
“I guess it was some kind of pheremone that snuck past our air filtration. Had a tech friend who swore up and down it was designed. He kept saying it was ‘optimized’, whatever that means.”
“Mind ray, fair-a-whatsit, same thing. Same effect in the end. Did you get exposed? What’d it feel like?”
“See, now your memory’s comin’ back.” Bram puts a hand on his head and closes his eyes. “It felt like… the most pleasure you’d ever experienced.”
“So, the leeches gave you a really good orgasm?” Wilt laughs.
“Not sharp pleasure. The easy-going kind. Where you feel like everything’s perfect, everything is going to be all right. We felt like… that perfection… while drones were still sabering the bug skeletons in half all around us. Me and the rest of the squad just laid down our guns and our packs. We didn’t care about any of it. We just knew everything was going to be fine. We knew everyone else felt the same way.”
“And that’s when you started dancing?”
“Ha. I heard that happened some places. But naw, not to us. We just kind of set everything down and sat in a circle. Hands on each other’s knees.”
“That’s some real hippie shit, son.” Wilt chuckles. “Now that you describe it, it makes me feel like I *was* there. But I don’t know any more.”
“I feel like you’d remember it,” Bram says, staring off at the golden fields, lost in thought.
“Hell, the bit I remember most is when I first unboxed one.” Wilt shakes his head. “Damnedest thing. For years we thought we were fighting six-foot alien roaches and flies and what-not.”
“I always thought it was weird they always looked so much like us. I mean, the bug skeletons were always different. But… always walking on their hind feet-pairs and such. And the faces…”
Wilt nods. “After the brass finally figured it out, we had to go around after battles, open all the boxes, and squish ’em.”
“Yeah. Rip off that weirdly human face-skin layer…” Bram grimaces. “And that sound they’d make when you yanked them out of the suit.”
“Yeah, and we had to cook them manually. Somehow the damn little leeches themselves could survive without air, without water. Through bullets and sometimes explosions. How were we supposed to win a war against something that’s more like glue than like a human?”
Bram nods. “Like glue.”
“Wait. Shit, Bram. That’s the last thing I really remember. My squad was clearing a field of roaches, going along squishing, when I felt something slap into my back. Pinching sensation on my neck.” Touching his neck, Wilt suddenly recoils from the bandage there.
Puzzled, Bram scratches his head. “You know, come to think of it, I can’t remember how I ended up at this nice hospital.” He gestures to the farmhouse behind them. “You? Remember?”
“How we got here? I barely remember my own name.” Wilt laughs nervously. “Where is *here?*”
“Earth.” He stares back at Wilt, brows squeezed together. “You feeling okay?”
Raising a shaking finger, Wilt points at the horizon.
Bram nods. “Yeah, the moon? Looks like how I remember.”
Wilt shakes his head. “No, man. Look up there.”
Spotting the second, smaller moon makes Bram’s brain skip the tracks. “Uh, what the… where the hell…”
With great effort, Wilt turns in his wheelchair and puts a shaking hand on Bram’s shoulder. “Do you remember the jacksuits?”
They stare up the moons, orange in the sunlit glow. Bram picks uneasily at the bandage on his neck. “Yes, of course I remember the god damn jacksuits.” He sighs. “They captured our captain, and when he came back, at first we thought everything was fine. But he was so insistent on talking with SHQ about peace talks. We knew something was up.”
“And when they had you de-suit him, you found the leech, right?”
Bram rubs his eyes. “What does this have to do with where we are, and why we can’t remember?”
“Do you remember… anything else about the jacksuits?”
The cicadas chirp, and Bram shakes his head. “No,” he whispers. “No, I don’t want to.”
“I’m pretty sure they trapped us in these humans. I mean, what?” Wilt looks around, confused. “I mean, they’ve got leeches on us! Controlling us right now!” He shakes his head. “No! I am not human! Foul ideas!”
“No,” Bram whispers again. “No no no no,” he starts to escalate, “NO NO NO NO NONONONONO–”
Wilt rocks back and forth in the wheelchair, screaming. “I don’t remember how I got in this filthy host!”
Bram yells, “There’s meat in my mouth!” Trying to pull on his tongue, he howls, “I fink it’s alive!”
Weakly scraping at the tape holding the bandage off, Wilt screams incoherently. “Not this man! Not this skin! Get me out! Get me outta here!”
“Gentlemen! Stop. You’ll hurt yourselves.” The doctor’s calm, commanding voice stops the cicadas for a moment. The men didn’t notice Ivy walk back out during the chaos. She stifles a laugh at the surprised looks on their faces, frozen in the act of trying to grab their own tongues and rip off their bandages.
“And you’ll damage the fusors,” she mutters to herself as she strides over to the medbot. “Release memory blocks.” She stares at the screen quickly, and then turns back to them. “Your non-host memories should be returning soon. Try to integrate the halves.”
“I can’t swallow it. It’s inside me but I can’t swallow!” Bram lurches forward and almost falls over as Ivy grabs his elbow and steers him back to his walker.
“Okay, okay, calm down, gentlemen. It’s called a tongue, Bram. Medbot, turn off the filter blocks now as well.” She shakes her finger in Bram’s face. “You. Just stay quiet, and watch the sunset.”
Wilt stares pure fear at Bram, who shrugs and smiles, all teeth and whites of the eyes. “Now I don’t want to let it out,” he says with his jaw clenched tight.
“Quiet, I said,” says Dr. Kaliche with a glare. <I can’t tell if you’re messing with me, or if you’re actually having this difficult a time with re-memory. But everything is fine,> she Says. <You will soon be able to Hear again.>
“What?” <Oh, goodness.> Wilt’s shoulders slump as he sighs with relief. <I think I can… Hear and remember again. That was all very… confusing.>
<It is good to remember slowly,> Ivy says. <Please stay in both halves. I need to ask some of our prepared questions.>
<Q-questions?> asks the Voice of Bram, shaking in its scents.
<Yes. Not yet. Please, both halves.> “Integrate,” she says aloud. The doctor makes a curious gesture, pushing both palms together but leaving a space between them. “Listen,” she says at the same time as she Says <Wait. Listen.>
<Ahhhh.> Bram’s sigh of pure satisfaction echoes in Wilt’s mind. <There we go. Still separate, but I can Hear and remember, as well.>
<I felt trapped. So alone.> Wilt rubs his eyes. <Their sight is quite a thing, though!> He begins to remove the bandage on his neck.
<It’s no wonder they were all crazy and psychotic. To be alone, to hear someone else flap their meat to make the air dance, and try to interpret across the gulf…>
<…Impossible, yes.> All the Speech has begun to blend together with the evening breeze, as it should. <Vibrating air waves for communication. Now I’ve seen it all.>
<What did you learn this time?>
<I don’t know if we’ll be able to change them enough to integrate.>
<Let’s breathe on it a while.>
Ivy helps them remove the bandages, and the shining black-green fingers latched to their necks pulse luminous in the fading sunlight. She rolls down her turtleneck a bit, letting her passenger breathe better.
One of them finally Speaks up. <It doesn’t seem to matter what host we chose. They hated each for being… other than them.>
<And when we joined with them, their reactions… so violent against integration. What can be done against that?>
<I don’t know if we’ll even be able to really understand them.>
<I don’t think they ever understood each other.>
Wilt chuckles. “You said it. I think our idea of communicating this all to them in their language will be… very difficult.”
Bram nods, stonefaced.
“So what’s the plan, Stan? How do we get through to them?” Wilt prods him. “What’s wrong, other half? Cat got your tongue again?”
<Get split,> he Says, “Screw you” aloud. <Let us think for a while. This integration is going to be harder than we thought. I still think my host is far handsomer than yours. Clearly I picked up some human mind-contagion.>
They all laugh out loud and in Scent, slowly remembering together while watching the sunset in borrowed bodies. The cicadas fall silent for a moment, like the golden fields are taking a breath. A sun sets, and the moons rise, reflecting.