The light of a thousand stars filled the small frame of film. Probably closer to a million stars when he considered that the small speck he’d captured was probably a galaxy, almost unimaginably far away. He focused in on the speck, calling on several filters and image sharpening tools at his disposal. Yes, there was the tell-tale halo, just barely visible against the background radiation, the change in gravity. He focused in a little more, applying a couple more filters and he was able to see the shape, a small elliptical galaxy that the disk was showing the beginnings of separation into arms of a spiral. Excitement coursed through his body. This little blob of stars and gas was the proof of his theory he’d been searching for. But he also knew, as any scientist does, that one image, one galaxy, doesn’t proof make. He’d have to find more, deep in the Universe’s past.
For now, he allowed himself the luxury of triumph. It was sweet, indeed, to find one of the transitional galaxies he’d been looking for for years. He let his mind roll around that thought, flirting with images of awards and recognitions for his achievements until he remembered a particular bet he’d made almost a lifetime ago.
Hastily, he gathered up his data, attaching the original image, the adjusted one and a list of the filters and adjustments he’d made so that his findings could be replicated and verified. The note he attached, though, was of a more playful tone.
Do you remember, Josh, just how long ago we made that bet and just what you owe me now? I hope you’ve kept in practice!
The glee that filled him was utterly delicious and he whiled away his time waiting by alternately imagining what would happen when he collected his prize and searching the other images he already head, combing over the faint specks of light, trying to see if another would reveal itself to be one of his special children, the intermediary steps between elliptical galaxies and spiral galaxies that he knew simply had to exist.
Long ago, when Robert and Josh had been mere undergrad students in the large physics department, doing the grunt work of the grad students who did the grunt work of the professors as they peered into the hearts of black holes and into the depths of history and time to understand how a universal black hole could result in the creation of everything seen and unseen, pondering the mysteries of what would happen if a galactic black hole exploded in the same way. Would there be nested universes? Would we on the outside be able to interact with that which the exploding black hole had created? Could our universe be nested in a higher one? Were these just questions without answers?
It hadn’t mattered then that Robert was an eight-year-old wunderkind and Josh was a traditional college student of eighteen. They became best friends, almost brothers-in-arms against the oppression of professors and grad students and deadlines and homework that was bound to take at least twice as long as they had been given by the professors. Together, they fought their way to 3.89 averages, graduating summa cum laude and into graduate school in five years.
They could have gone almost anywhere, but only one school would take both of them, so that was the program they opted for, moving from the comforts of home halfway around the world. Here, their differences led them to slightly different lines of research, Robert looking into galactic evolution and trying to find the ‘how,’ if not the ‘why’ behind the way the galaxies looked the way they did. Josh wandered into black holes and quasars. The topics were related enough that they could still bounce ideas off each other. They roomed together through the eight years that it took for them to earn their doctorate.
Things changed between them one night, about five years in, though. Robert was just shy of eighteen, Josh a little over twenty-eight. They’d been working on examining data that had more to do with Robert’s galactic evolution than quasars, though black holes did seem to be involved. They’d been at it for two days straight with only short naps between the two of them. Robert stood, stretching until he stood on his toes, groaning as his muscles protested the motion.
“Josh,” he said, ignoring the way the crack in his voice made his friend’s name two syllables, one about an octave higher than the other. “I want to propose an experiment.”
Josh frowned, looking up from the computer terminal, raising his goggles to look at Josh without pictures of stars and galaxies floating before his eyes. “What experiment?” he asked, both confused and interested.
“A biochemical experiment,” Robert said. “I find myself agitated and unable to focus clearly on the task at hand. I have noticed that you seem better able to focus after spending intimate time with an agreeable companion. My proposition is that you either become or acquire someone agreeable so that my mind can return to the task at hand.”
Josh’s jaw dropped. “Do you know what you’re asking for?” he stammered.
Robert frowned a little. “I’m not sure I understand your question.”
“You want me to find you a prostitute, an easy woman or just sleep with you myself?” Josh said, disbelief coloring his voice.
“Is there something wrong with that?” Robert asked, genuinely confused. “It’s something you do, isn’t it?”
Josh took the goggles off and set them on the desk. He rubbed his hand over his face and stood. “Robert, you’re my best friend, gods know that, but usually that’s something you do for yourself.”
“Self-stimulation has not been satisfactory,” Robert countered, almost whining. He ran his fingers through his hair. “I…I tried, Josh. I can’t get my mind to focus and you seem more relaxed and focused after ‘getting laid,’ I believe is how you say it.” His hands fell to his sides again and he shoved them into his pockets.
Brushing a lock of hair back, Josh sighed. Rarely did he ever think about the age difference between them. It had never really mattered. But now, the ten years seemed an almost impossible weight. “You know that, technically, you’re too young for a prostitute for another six months, don’t you?” he said, his voice gentle. “And the ones that don’t ask are not the ones you want to go to. As far as easy women, that usually requires a bar and you’re too young for that, too.” He paused, considering almost long enough for Josh to say something again. “I… I’m concerned that if I do anything with you, that it may change the dynamic of our friendship.” He sighed. “Let’s try something first,” he suggested. “A pre-experiment to see if we should follow through. Data gathering,” he said.
Robert’s frown remained. “Define the parameters of your data collection,” he said, hiding behind technical language to keep his voice from trembling with nerves or fear, he wasn’t sure which.
Josh swallowed. Would this really change anything and could he convince Robert to stop after this bit of ‘data collection.’ Would he want to? It had been in the back of his mind to suggest a break. “A kiss, to see if our bodies will react favorably.”
Robert blinked and nodded. “Very well,” he said.
“A question, first,” Josh pressed. “Why me? Why not just insist that I take you somewhere to find a woman?”
Robert looked at the gap under the door where the light of the hall could be seen. The room they were in, his room, technically, was kept dark so they could see the faint objects they were seeking. “I can’t shake the image of you from my mind when I think about finding release. Most of the time, I’m… I’m thinking of you. Sometimes, about thirty percent of the time, I think about a woman, but the rest…”
Josh drew his lip between his teeth. If he were honest, he’d have to admit he’d thought about Robert while masturbating on occasion. “So, you’re bi like the rest of us,” he said wryly, referring to about the only thing both of them remembered from their required Intro to Psych course. His hand found its way to Robert’s hair again, brushing it back, lingering as Robert leaned into his touch. “A kiss, and we’ll see from there,” he said, reiterating their agreement.
“Okay,” Robert replied, his voice breathless.
Josh swallowed, nerves rising up as he closed the distance between them, first moving to stand toe-to-toe with Robert, then awkwardly wrapping his arms around his friend. He swallowed before closing the final distance and pressing his lips to Robert’s. They stood awkwardly a moment before Josh drew back. He swallowed again. “Well?”
Robert frowned at him. “Is that how you kiss?” he asked. “I thought you were better than that.”
“You…” Josh growled and just to prove he was better, he kissed Robert again, this time managing to banish from his mind the thought that this was his friend and intent on proving his skills in the romantic arts. This time, the kiss continued, deepening, especially when Josh responded favorably, pressing closer to Robert and wrapping his arms around his neck. It was a long time before he pulled back and by then he was very aroused.
“Did you have to stop?” Robert whimpered, his hands moving to hold onto Josh’s shirt. His eyes were dark, his cheeks flushed.
Josh’s jaw worked a moment before leaning back to kiss him again. He couldn’t think of anything to actually say that wouldn’t sound utterly stupid and he wasn’t sure why he’d stopped anymore, either. Clothing found its way to the floor before either of them spoke again.
“Do you have any condoms?” Josh asked, his lips finding their way to Robert’s neck.
“No,” Robert whimpered, somehow afraid that Robert would make them stop.
“We’ll have to improvise,” Josh muttered. “Just grinding or handjob,” he panted out, his lips moving to Robert’s ear and nipping.
Robert moaned in relief and pleasure. “Good,” he breathed, his hands moving to Josh’s ass. “I… don’t want to stop,” he said, managing to sound embarrassed even as he said it.
“There can be more later,” Josh promised, his hips rocking against Robert’s. The moan of pleasure that action drew caused him to repeat the action, finding a rhythm that satisfied them both.
Taking staggering steps, Robert moved back until he was against the door. His knees trembled and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to hold himself up without support. Josh followed him, pressed him to the door, grinding harder. “Josh,” he moaned, his voice thick with pleasure and need.
“Shh,” Josh warned. “There are others outside,” he whispered then covered Robert’s mouth with his own again.
They rocked against each other, against the door, the warning about others outside soon forgotten as pleasure became more pressing, closer, thicker around them, between them. Their lips separated, giving them a chance to breathe, gasping pants for air, moaning, before rejoining. All too quickly, Robert’s body tensed, his head going back against the door as he rose up on his toes, coming hard. Josh kept moving, coming soon after, leaning heavily against Robert, pinning him to the door.
“I would call the experiment a success,” Robert whispered, his voice somehow both clinical and sated.
Josh laughed, moving away a little, his hand pressing against the door, his hips still pinning Robert. “You think?” he taunted.
Robert smiled. “I also think we should repeat it later, when we’re more prepared. I believe I will be able to concentrate now.” He reached up and caressed Josh’s cheek. “Thank you. I’m glad it was you.”
“Me, too,” Josh murmured, a little surprised at just how true the words were. He turned and pressed a kiss to Robert’s palm. “We have work to do. Let’s get it taken care of,” he suggested, moving away.
Robert nodded. He rubbed his stomach. “Itches,” he said, making a face.
Josh laughed and walked to the desk, where he had a container of wet wipes. He pulled out a couple of them and handed them over then pulled out a couple for himself. It was strangely easy, casual, to be naked with Robert. It was comfortable despite how new everything was. They dressed and returned to their research.
Their relationship continued through their completion of their doctorate work, sex becoming something they did, as they ate with each other, studied, researched. Sex was just something else they did. Josh stopped seeking out others and Robert didn’t bother. They never formalized anything between them, never claimed anything deeper than friendship.
When their dissertations were finished and their doctorates confirmed, there wasn’t a place they could go together to continue their research. They found research facilities that were close enough that they could continue to live together, though, especially with the high-speed monorails crossing the continent, even if their experiments sometimes required that they might have to stay overnight at work from time to time.
There came a time, though, that Josh was offered a position that was too tempting to turn down, but there was nothing near enough for Robert to follow.
“Of course you should go,” Robert said as they lay tangled together in bed. Josh had been particularly amorous, needy before he’d been coaxed into revealing the offer. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“I’d miss you,” Josh admitted, burying his face into Robert’s neck. It was the closest he’d come to admitting how much he cared for his lover.
Robert tightened his arms around Josh. “We’ll be able to see each other. You should go.”
It felt almost like a knife twisting in Josh’s chest. He pushed himself up to look at Robert. “I’ll see you when you prove your theory,” he said, pushing himself out of the bed and started gathering things together. “When you can show me proof, I’ll blow you harder than you’ve ever been blown before,” he snapped.
Robert frowned, sitting up and watching Josh. “Okay,” he said, confused. He wanted to say something else, but had no idea what was going through Josh’s head and didn’t know what else to say to him. He wrapped the sheet around his body, watching as Josh threw his clothes into a suitcase and dressed. Within an hour, he was gone.
Sure he would find his answer soon—his graduate work had been promising—Robert was sure that he would see Josh again soon. As time passed, they didn’t communicate directly, but Robert kept track of Josh’s progress and research. He struggled to find the evidence he needed, becoming more and more obsessive. His undergraduate and graduate assistants took to making sure he ate and attended his lectures and took care of his other obligations.
Technology progressed to where they could have again lived together and still worked at their separate sites, but Robert heard nothing from Josh directly and wasn’t sure how to approach him anymore. Smaller and greater advances allowed Robert to connect directly to the computers he needed to work on his theory as well as others that entertained him. The implications of string theory on his galactic gravitational dances, even the black hole-powered quasars that might yield more about the Big Bang that started the Universe, that might be beginnings of Universes themselves.
In these last, he came into indirect contact with Josh and each almost-contact made him hungrier for their former relationship, made him delve deeper into the computer-built world. Soon, he was more of the computer than of his own body. At some point, he wasn’t really aware of when, his body expired. But, it didn’t matter, because he’d heard Josh had entered the system, was a part of the computer network that at one point had been called the Internet but now was referred more often to as ‘advanced reality’ when it became a common thing to interact directly with the computers and servers that spanned the globe.
Even when travel was as simple as thought, Robert held back from contacting Josh. He didn’t have proof yet and Josh’s last comment to him had never been forgotten.
The wait for Josh’s reply was agonizing. While the message traveled at the speed of light through the wires and air to bounce off satellites and then back through wires, confirming his results, confirming that the fuzzy spot bare pixels wide was what he thought it was.
Having someone else’s consciousness flow through him was something Robert had heard of but never experienced before. But Josh was definitely there, definitely flowing through him more intimately than their physical bodies ever could have. “Took you long enough,” Josh said, his tone both bitter and relieved.
“You set a difficult goal,” Robert almost sobbed.
“I love you,” Josh said for the first time.
Robert laughed, wrapping around Josh. “I love you, too.”
There was an urban legend that said that lovers could meld into a single personality. It had only been an urban legend before. The theory became that when lovers become one, they become a part of the matrix of the alternate reality, a part of the intelligence that didn’t belong to distinct individuals but is a part of the new world.