(in)complete control

[ Note: contains scenes involving the aftermath of violence. If that sort of thing is at all triggering for you, do please move along. ]

I felt like I was on fire when I woke up.

In my head, I flung back the sweat-damp duvet and pivoted up and sideways on one hip. In reality, I managed to push myself half-upright before discovering I couldn't even lean against the bed properly and so slithered gracelessly to the floor. My legs didn't want to work the way I expected and I had a weapons-grade headache. That was when I remembered the stabbing pain in my leg while at the metro station the day before. I twisted round as best I could and found what looked like a serious insect bite.

Spiked.

It was the sort of thing that happened to other people - usually in the more excitable media.

Like most others, I'd stashed a box of energy gels in the bathroom when there'd been the last moral panic about rogue nanotech. I crawled there on wobbly limbs, hoping that the gels weren't too far out of date, fumbled the box from under the sink and squinted at it; March 2065. Not too bad, then. I clutched the box to my chest and crawled into the shower. I set it full on cold and squeezed two gels down my throat. The immediate problem with an involuntary nanotech infection is that it's not keyed to your metabolism. Thus it has a tendency to run hot and cook you from the inside. It also tends to use more power that it can easily find. That means you need to carb-load like there is a tomorrow and you'll be running a couple of marathons.

After half an hour, I'd stopped shivering enough to be able to take stock. Female again, and, if the empty box of gels was a useful measure, going to end up curvy when the nanotech finished its work. I'd been female before; there were only a few over-religious sorts who didn't experiment with the stuff as soon as they were old enough. I'd had large breasts before, too. There are clubs south of the river where most of the clientele are horny teenage boys wearing ludicrous porn star bodies with unlikely breasts or horny teenage girls wearing muscle-mary bodies with unfeasible penises. Most people settle down when they discover that the sex or the walking around isn't anything like as much fun as they imagined. Some people like it, of course; it's a big world out there. It's also done wonders for the accuracy of slash.

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. Roundish face, big brown eyes, cute nose. Pretty rather than striking. I could handle pretty. I yawned. I could handle pretty a lot more after a good long sleep.

I couldn't see over my chest when I woke again. I levered myself up on my elbows and they were just there. I was badly off balance when I went to inspect myself in the long mirror on the bedroom wall. Wow. Urban legend had it that most spikings would leave you with antlers, multiple penises or an udder; pranks more than anything else. I couldn't help smiling at my reflection; someone seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble, because I was a bit too well put together to be just the victim of a prank. I turned, flicked a mane of brown hair out of the way and viewed my ample behind. This was the sort of body that would inspire looking after rather than dribbling over. Bob would know. Bob would actually be keen to get his hands on this nanotech if it really was 0-day stuff.

I was pretty sure that I'd thrown out all my girl clothes the last time I'd changed. I'd returned to male after a relationship ended and I guess that after the first several months back in a male body, I'd carefully forgotten that I liked being female because, well, it was tainted from being suckered by that two-timing bastard. It's funny; you can kind of accidentally destroy any rigid notion of gender, but there are still arseholes. For that reason, I wasn't keen on going outside without at least a bra. The weird thing is that a good percentage of the people who'd shout from their cars would have been female themselves at one time or another. Like I said - arseholes.

I propped my phone on the table and 3D scanned myself. 34G? I scowled, shook my head and ordered some underwear, jeans and random tops. A few minutes later, the phone chimed to tell me that the items I'd requested would be delivered tomorrow. I spent the rest of the day slumped moodily in my dressing gown and composing flame-mail to my personal AV vendor in my head.

* * *

Bob's Body Shop was more or less what you'd expect; a high-end body modification suite done out to look like a pseudo-retro car repair place.

"Simone! Dudette! Long time no wossname!" Bob, or Bobbi by the state of her hips, was rocking a very designer version of a mechanic's overall.

"Angel! Why on earth are you hiding those gorge legs under that?" I said, matching her fashionista-for-the-gallery tone.

We air-kissed. I didn't know how much longer I could keep it up. Bobbi grabbed my hand and hauled me into her office. She perched on the end of an authentically cluttered desk and looked me up and down.

"That's so not you. I mean, I like what you're trying to say, but that whole girl-next-door thing is..." She flapped her hands to indicate something like 'too last week to be spoken about'.

I nodded and looked around for a chair to flop into. I found one and flopped. Some interior designer must have spent several days scanning through pictures of old-time garages and several more finding just the right manuals and parts books with just the right oily fingermarks. I sniffed. It smelled of moisturiser and antiseptic rather than motor oil and hand cleanser.

"This wasn't voluntary," I said.

Her eyes widened and she leaned forward to inspect me some more. "You don't say. Want to talk me through it?"

I shrugged. "Not much to tell. Markov-spiked two days ago. I woke up just before I cooked off, so I'm guessing some 0-day nanotech and I'm lucky not to be a pile of steaming goo."

Bobbi looked suitably horrified. That sort of thing bad for business.

"So you toddled down here for a M-scan and to share the reward for finding a new exploit? Good girl!"

"Yes, that... And because I never came round to apologise for not listening when you warned me off The Arsehole."

Her expression softened. "I've missed you. It really is good to see you again, and I'm sorry it all went to ratshit. I've seen you about in that smelly male body, but I couldn't..." She shrugged and dropped her gaze.

I leaned forward and grabbed her hand. "It's ok. I understand. I needed to be on my own for a while, and it kind of turned into a lifestyle choice. And for your information I rather liked that body. It was original for a start."

Bobbi clutched at her chest in mock horror. "Walking around in public unmodified? Dear lord what sort of mutant are you?"

"A happy one," I said.

She smiled. "Touché. Right then, let's get you debugged... Are you sure you don't want to stay like that? It is rather growing on me."

I stood up. "I'm tempted, but," I prodded at my cleavage. "These things are a complete liability."

In keeping with the whole retro-motoring theme, most of the M-scan platforms were skeletal things that would go up and down on small hydraulic rams. Bobbi led me past all that and through a door with the ominous name 'Parts dept.'

I looked a question at her. She stooped, rubbed her hands together and cackled 'Velcome to my laboratory...' She then straightened and pointed things out. "High-bandwith M-scanner, disposable VM rig in case of active countermeasures, no connection to the outside world ditto and the room's a Faraday cage. You get the special treatment because your payload might cut up rough if we look at it funny."

That stopped me in my tracks.

"Bobbi, when you say 'cut up rough'..?" I asked.

She shrugged and made a face. "Thermal runaway's the one you know about. Ebola-style hard fail's popular too. Look, don't worry; I've not lost a client yet, and can you imagine the cost of a full level-5 hazmat clear up? So not going to happen. Now, get your lovely arse on that scanner and let us see what is to be seen."

I settled myself on the bed of the thing. I thought I felt a static tingle and a warm flush, the same way you think you feel something when standing in front of a microwave. I stared at the ceiling as Bobbi typed and hummed tunelessly. It seemed to be a stainless mesh, behind which were cable-trays filled with great hanks of orange and yellow fibre.

"Ok, angel. You're done," said Bobbi.

I raised my head and looked sideways at her. She smiled and patted the chair next to her own, so I beetled across and sat. She pointed at the screen.

"Ok. Good news; it's commercial, so nothing we haven't seen before. Bad news; the exploit is pretty hardcore. I'm going to need a blood sample I can work on in isolation, so I can send a proof-of-concept to your AV vendor. All basic stuff, but it takes time. It'll be about a week before we can put you back in your stinky male body."

I nodded. I could cope with this body for a week.

"Odd news," she continued. "You're carrying a lot more payload than required for a one-off change. It may be just a feature of the way the thing was bolted together though, which is probably more good news. This is scriptkiddy stuff, though without the usual level of cock-for-a-tie 'humour'.

She actually made the finger quotes in the air. I smiled and realised that I'd properly missed her. Don't let arseholes rent space in your head.

Bobbi waved a vampire tap at me. "I vant to trink your blut. Or rather this wee machine does."

She positioned the thing in the crook of my elbow. It wriggled against me, and then I felt it nip and start to suck, It seemed like it had slurped up an armful by the time Bobbi tapped the big button on the top. It licked fake skin onto the puncture wound and probably tried to kiss it better, too.

She held the thing over a petri dish and had it spit a few drops. There was a loud hiss as it bubbled furiously. The blood, my blood from inside me, boiled away to a brown sludge. I gawped at the remains.

"That's going to make life interesting," said Bobbi.

She sounded calm enough. I took a deep breath and tried not to squeak too much.

"Is that challenge-interesting or oh-shit-interesting?"

Bobbi looked surprised. "Oh. Sorry. It's weird; I'd forgotten that you've not been involved with this stuff. No, don't worry. It's a self-destruct to make it hard to reverse-engineer. It's kind of like flavour of the month. Like you remember when that gear came out of South Korea that was all penis-antler boobytraps? So two years ago. Um. Where was I? Right. That means it'll take a while longer to debug, so you'll have to remain adorable for at least a month."

I couldn't help smiling. I was getting the distinct impression that Bobbi had taken a bit of a shine to me in this body. I briefly entertained the idea of finding out how much of a shine, but it could be a quick way of fucking a friendship. I leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. She blushed and smiled.

"Thank you," I said. "You've been lovely."

"Oh, absolutely any time, angel. Which, um. Would you perhaps fancy glamming it up this Saturday and accompanying me to a thing? I have a plus-one and no-one to share it with... Oh, lordy. That sounds both desperate and a sympathy fuck doesn't it? I'm sorry, I just..."

I put a hand on her arm. "Bobbi. Yes. Ping me with details. Although, um, how glam?"

I was treated to a kilowatt smile. God, I was so in here.

"It's a modern art event, so I think that means charity shop chic for the artists and cocktail wear for the patrons and hangers-on. And it's Bee. Bobbi's the name for the punters."

"Little black dress. Bee. Got it," I said.

There was a chime from the screen.

"Oops," she said. "That'll be a paying customer. Not that you... Oh, you know."

I knew.

We steamed out onto the shop-floor, air kissed for the audience, and then she was off angel-ing and sweetie-ing at the next person.

I walked home rather than take the metro. There were fewer people to stare down my cleavage or try to stick me with designer bugs, and I wanted time to think and stare into shop windows. Bee was very obviously into me; even an idiot could spot that. I tried to remember how she'd been when we last met. I'd been female and working for Bob-the-male as a nanotech coder, which was how I met The Arsehole, who'd been one of his customers at the time. It was a stupid and regularly re-hashed story, which didn't make it any less painful. Arsehole had pulled this big 'Why Simone, you're gorgeous, let me tempt you away to a life of luxury goods hacking the nanotech of the rich and/or famous' and like an idiot hypnotised by the smell of Vuitton luggage, I'd fallen for it wholesale. The fact that he was an amazing shag didn't hurt in the slightest.

The moment that still plays in my head when my subconscious feels I need a good kicking is a party on some gin-palace of a motor yacht. I'm standing in a corner in a borrowed gown that's showing more leg than I thought possible and drinking steadily to numb the shyness, when Bob heaves to. He's clutching a bottle of champagne like it's his only friend in the room and goes "Si, I... Look, this is going to sound awful, but... Please don't go off with that man. I don't... I don't think he has anyone's best interests at heart but his own."

I tell him, loudly, that I couldn't believe he'd try something like that and make to storm out. He holds my arm and says "I'm sorry. I should have told you sooner, but I... Simone, I..." which is when I twist free and flounce off.

Two days later I woke in a hotel room in Berlin to discover that The Arsehole had vanished with all the designs I'd been working on for him, and a good section of Bob's customer list that I'd been persuaded to 'liberate' too. I'd been so embarrassed by my stupidity that I returned to male within hours of getting home and the longer I went without finding Bob to apologise, the worse it all became in my head.

I cringed inwardly and tried to think about something far less unpleasant. The shop to my left had a quite striking dress in ther window. Overbust corset as top half, floor-length skirt with at least two slits and a faux-military lycra shrug-thing if the owner wanted to show slightly less flesh. Though given the way it and I were put together, it would be an unmistakable bosom showcase.

For two years I'd bought clothes that kept me warm or had pockets for phones and clean handkerchiefs, and I'd forgotten that odd rush that went 'I can't wear that. I mean I could wear that but great christ I might as well wear a t-shirt reading 'willing dupe of the patriarchy'. God that's so hot, I wonder if I could get away with it? When on earth would I wear something like that anyway? Oh, wait...'

I looked stunning in it. I'd need to put my hair up for the complete effect, but it was total red-carpet stuff. I'd got the thing home and had been thinking what Bee would say when I passed out.

* * *

I was cold and curled into a ball when I came to. Everything hurt. My eyelids felt like like they were crusted shut with something. I let go of my knees and tried to rub whatever-it-was away. My right eye worked; I was lying naked on the hall carpet near the open door of my bedroom. I whimpered when I touched my left eye. That whole side of my face felt like it was about twice the size it should have been. I must have fainted and bounced my head off something on the way down. I levered myself into a kneeling position. My breasts were a mass of bites and scratches. I was... Oh God. I started to weep silently. I couldn't make my legs move independently and I just wanted to curl up again and protect my... my... oh god oh god oh fuck. What if he or... or oh fuck no... they were still in the place? Where was my phone? Think, Si. It's a tiny place you've got. I held my breath, but all I could hear was... nothing. I forced my legs to move. It was like I'd caned it in the gym and fallen asleep in an odd position all at once. I crabbed slowly to where I'd left my phone next to my computer and peered at the thing with my one good eye. Sunday? How had I lost two days? There were about a dozen messages from Bee. They started out cheerful, made a dive toward put out and finished with a plaintive 'Call me? Please? Bx.' I sniffed, blinked away the tears and managed to send 'please come over now'.

Bee found me in the shower. I'd scrubbed myself raw with a nailbrush and was curled up again to protect myself from the sting of the hot water, when I heard a squeak of pure anguish. I looked up to see Bee, wide-eyed and hands over her mouth. Her expression made me feel awful.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I couldn't think of anyone else to call."

Bee reached in to turn the water off. "You're sorry? Oh, you poor, poor girl."

She found a towel, wrapped it round me and held me while I snivelled into her lap.

Much later, I was curled up on the sofa. I was too sore to sit up straight, so I'd pulled my legs up underneath me and was leaning sideways on Bee.

"Some fucker out there really hates her," I said.

"Her? D'you mean you?"

I looked up at Bee. She was still giving me an all-purpose worried look. I half smiled.

"No, her. Whoever's the original for this body. I've not gone dissociative, Bobs."

"Well, if you say so. Look, walk me through it, would you?"

I took a breath. "Ok, so. I'm stabbed in the leg in a crowd like it was some historic cold-war re-enactment of that Markov fellow. You discover that the nanotech isn't anything special, which rules out the spooks or corporate espionage, if only because I'm not doing anything important and I'm not dead. So we assume a prank. Then I'm... I'm... Oh, hell. I can't even say the word. How crap's that? Anyway. The people listed on the door access control list are me and, as of a few hours ago, you. The logs show that I let someone in late on Friday night, which is a bit damn odd because the last thing I remember is admiring the dress I bought for our date."

I stopped and looked up at her again.

"It was a date, wasn't it?"

She nodded, eyes bright. "Yes."

"I'm sorry I stood you up. I feel awful."

"Don't be stupid. I mean, really," said Bee.

"So, um, the only thing that makes any sort of sense is that some sick fuck out there has a really nasty thing for this body and I was just the lucky contestant he picked to ply his foul trade. I mean, it's an awful lot of trouble to go to. And. God. Just look at her, um, me. I'm cute and harmless and just, you know, nice. And yet he... he walloped me and he bit me and he..."

"Shh..." Bee held me until I stopped shivering.

I took a deep breath and held up a finger. I had to get the next sentences out in one piece, otherwise I'd just explode.

"You know, this is the first time I've been glad to only be slapped about. Well, I say 'glad' and I use the phrase 'slapped about' because, actually, 'beaten fucking witless' is, ugh, how did that happen to me? It's not like there's some man of the house to decide that I need to be disciplined in some way or another. And... And the thing I keep thinking is that it could have been so much worse and I am glad that it wasn't. Only a kicking? Not too bad. Obviously only a minor transgression that one of us made... God, I don't even..." I shrugged and curled up tighter.

"We should go to the police," said Bee.

I scowled. "Riiight. 'So, er, 'sir'. You say that you were 'accidentally' changed in broad daylight on a metro platform, then you let person or persons unknown into your flat, whereupon you allege that you were assaulted. Yet you also state that you have no memory of the alleged activities'. Somehow I don't see them putting a squad of their best people on it... God, sorry Bobs."

She gave me a squeeze. "Good point, slightly over-the-top execution," she said. "Anyway, should I, um..?" She left me to fill in the blanks.

"Yes I would like you to stay and no I won't make you sleep on the sofa. I don't expect that I'll thump you in the face mid-nightmare or be turned into a sex-robot... Christ. I'm someone's meatbag fuck puppet, aren't I? But I feel I should warn y..."

"Yes."

"... that it'll all be terribly chaste. Obviously."

"Yes," she said again.

I slunk into bed and pointedly didn't watch Bee fling her clothes on the floor. She snuggled into my back, which gave me something else to think about. I had these scenes looping in my head; waking up on the hall floor, looking down at myself covered in scratches and then looking back up to see Bee come steaming into the bathroom.

I woke up in the Parts Department. I was on the M-scanner again. Naked, this time.

"Don't move," said Bee.

I didn't move.

"You had another fembot attack in the small hours. It was, um, pretty obvious that there was a sex-crazed bastard at the door and that you were jolly keen to let them in. I, um, was quite insistent that we should bunk off down the fire escape. Thankfully your controller likes them docile, otherwise, well, we're here now. I think I also owe you an apology... Ok, you can get up now."

I levered myself off the scanner bed. Everything still ached, although less so. My robe had been slung over the back of the chair next to Bee. She mad a point of not looking at my reflection in the screen as I hobbled over and wrapped myself in the thing.

"Apology?" I asked.

"Yeah. I think I know how your remote control works. I really wasn't looking for big structures yesterday and, well, take a look."

There was some girl's back view on the screen. She had a way cute bum and... Oh, that was me. The scanner was doing some false colour cycling thing that looped through the various structures - skin, muscle, nerves, veins & arteries, skeleton, tendons, clusters of nanotech and something narrow and opaque that ran the length of my spine.

"What is it?" I peered at the screen. I was two years out of practice and everything I once knew about nanotech and body-work was screamingly obsolete.

"An aerial. Mr. Sex-bastard emits a signal and your bogus nanotech doses you up with a rohypnol analogue."

"That's some fucked up shit right there."

I was having trouble dealing with the fact that this was actually happening to me. It felt like we were looking at the logs from some poor unfortunate and working out how long it was going to take to get everything back to normal for her.

Bee turned to me. "Stupid question, but do you fancy helping me with some debugging?"

"I need breakfast and clothes and someone to go to my flat to make it secure, because I guess if I leave this room, I'm fucked. Oh, and if they could bring back the dress at the right-hand end of the wardrobe, too," I said.

"Dress? Why?"

"You'll see..."

* * *

It took all of four hours to get back into the swing of it. Among the day's discoveries were that as soon as I stopped worrying about having out-of-date skills, some odd muscle-memory asserted itself and I was elbow-deep in reverse engineering my personal infestation. The other notable discovery was that a steel-boned overbust corset is a usefully effective personal Faraday cage. Bee's expression when she saw me scuttle out of the Parts Dept towards the toilet was remarkable. One third soppy grin, one third drooling lust and one third concern that I'd fembot out again and do something untoward in view of the customers. I didn't process any of that until hours later, though. I had a complex map of nanobot logic in my head to puzzle through.

I forgot to flinch when someone dug their thumbs into my shoulder muscles and started easing the kinks out. By the time that I remembered I should have jumped a mile, it seemed a much better idea to un-hunch my shoulders and think hard about not purring.

"Progress, angel?" Bee. Obviously.

"Mmmmmohgodyesdontstop," I said.

She kept going until I flapped my hands for mercy. I think I flowed into a slumped position while Bee composed herself in the other chair, crossed her legs and looked at me with raised eyebrows and a half smile. She was way better at the girl performance than I.

"Progress. Yes. I can now give you a library of, um, 'specialist' options for your more, er, demanding clientele, which probably explains the density of the nanotech."

Bee waved at the screen. "Please, demonstrate your findings."

I demonstrated. A rendering of a woman catwalked in and out of the screen. Bee blinked and leaned in for a closer look.

"Ponygirls are a little two years ago. Nice touch with the white fetlocks, though."

"What on earth do you wear when you've got a tail?" I said.

She shrugged. "Holdups or stockings and a cake-frill skirt, lycra, latex. Or just hotpants and tie a red bow into your tail." It seemed like she knew far too much about it.

"Your kink?" I smiled.

Bee blushed and re-crossed her legs. I looked at her with my head on one side.

"What?"

"Just imagining you with a tail. Actually, I think it could be kind of hot."

She blushed some more. It really was staggeringly cute.

"Next deviancy, please... That's not too odd. Wait, is that a tongue? Ew! Next!"

"What happened to your professional detachment and acceptance of the broad range of human sexuality" I said.

Bee grimaced. "Anything that doesn't startle the horses, when it's a client. It's just... I can't help imagining what you'd be feeling when you woke up like that. Without knowing what was going to happen, I mean. That's one of the more fucked up bits. It's like, um, there's the set of people who totally dig ponygirls because that's their thing, right? Then there's another set of people who want a tail because all the cool kids have one, and it's just a fashion accessory like any other... But they all go into actual shops and say 'I want one of those things', then stride out a while later to show off their latest purchase... You don't get the option, you just get what Freaky McFuckup wants... And, yeah, I know that there are people who'd totally go for that particular scene, but I don't think that's your bag, right?"

I shuddered. "Ugh. True. I think I fell into thinking about it happening to someone else.

Bee gave me a very odd look.

"What?"

"Did you ever wonder who was the model for your body?"

I stared at the screen. The avatar of the woman with two tongues was still waddling to and fro.

"Of course. The fact that... that... happened makes me think that either sex-bastard can't get at her, so he has to satisfy his foul urges by other means, or, um, he already has got at her and now he wants another taste, which, um, sort of means that... Oh god what if she's dead?"

Bee squeezed my hand. "No point speculating, angel. Can you bring up your current body, too?"

I could.

"God. Do I really walk like that?" I said.

"You do. It's distracting. Oh, do stop smirking. It's unseemly to be that pleased with yourself. Anyway, search for those three and let the inference engine to its work."

I was about to demonstrate the remainder of my possible bodies, when there was a 'Bok!' noise and the screen filled with pictures.

Bee pointed. "Look, there's our ponygirl."

The picture was part of a news item from four years ago. 'Brutal slaying of local woman' read the headline.

There are times when being right is less than no fun at all. Ms. Two-tongue was on the next screen: 'No new clues in park stabbing.' A front page from two years ago.

"Oh, fucking hell," I said.

Bee did her best to be reassuring. "Look, there's no sign of your body in the news section. Have a poke across the FriendFace."

I poked. There she was. Mugging for the camera in a sequence of bars and restaurants, peering hungover from a tent at a festival, trying to ignore the camera from a sunlounger somewhere hot and popular. I ordered the photos by time and location. The dots speckled across the map and seemed to cluster in a suburb to the west.

Bee hauled her chair closer and rested her chin on my shoulder. "She seems to be quite the visitor to the Skylab Lounge."

"You know the place?" I said.

She moved her chin back and forth on my collarbone. "Yep. It's got a wierd sort of retro-future vibe to it. All luminous cocktails and random jazz. You'd love it."

I took a deep breath. "We're going to have to find her and, I don't know, warn her or ask if she knows any nutters or something."

* * *

The barman seemed really pleased to see me.

"Robyn! You're early dear. But omigod that outfit is..." He smiled and gestured to the phone on the shelf behind him. "Sorry. New phone. Hasn't synced all my contacts yet. But that's still a storming outfit."

Dealing with mistaken identity is one of those modern manners for which they briefly made comedy.

We lurked in a booth at the back of the place. Bee kept an eye on the door while I poked at social graph data on my phone. There had to be some connection between the three of them. I'd contructed a large query and set it running when Bee nudged me. I looked up to see my twin walking in with a group of people. There was some back and forth with the barman before he pointed us out. Her friends froze, then two of the bigger lads very deliberately stood between us and the bar.

"They know," I said.

"Know what? There's no copyright on looks anymore. I mean, as far as faux pas go, two people turning up with the same body is good for a laugh and maybe a picture for the FriendFace."

I shrugged. "You may be right. Look, she's coming over."

"I'm always right, dear."

Robyn had pushed past her two friends and turned to shoo them to the other end of the bar. She slid into the booth next to Bee and leaned her forearms on the tabletop. "That's a very nice body you've got there," she said. Her grin was wide and wicked. I made a mental note to try a look like that out on Bee.

"Thank you," I said. "I'm becoming rather fond of it. Although I must say that you seem much more at home in it."

Her smile softened into something a lot less plastic. "Thanks. I have had several years for it to grow on me." She smiled again and glanced at Bee.

"Oh, sorry," I said. "Manners and all that. This is Bee and I'm Simone. I'm guessing you're Robyn. I mean the barman was way pleased to see me, or at least this body so, um..."

I peered at my phone. It was still crunching its way through the query I'd handed it; find some person common to Robyn and the two dead women. I looked up again. Robyn was starting to look a little wary. There are damaged people who'll fixate on someone else, usually a someone in the middle of their fifteen minutes, and try their best to cargo-cult their victim's life because they think their own is so rubbish. My heart sank.

"Oh. God. I've just worked out what this looks like. I'm totally like some awful chasey-chasey freakshow which, um, God no. Bee? Help?" I glanced at my phone again. What was taking so long?

Bee rolled her eyes. "What my dear but geeky friend is failing to explain is that a few days ago some nut-job spiked her with some dodgy nanotech and she woke up looking like you. We were kinda-sorta wondering if you might have a pet stalker or something."

Robyn had the good grace to look relieved.

"That's so weird. I mean I guess I was kind of flattered when I saw you, and totally curious. Then I remembered that a friend had a crap time with a chaser and... I'm sorry." She seemed suddenly fascinated by whatever was in her lap.

"No, I'm sorry. I'm having a hard time explaining what's going on to myself, so anyone else is going to get arm-waving and gibberish," I said.

Robyn looked up again. "I'm still curious, though. What, um, did you think when you looked in the mirror? Were you really freaked out and stuff?"

I smiled. "Actually, I thought I looked totally cute. And it meant that I had to go and find Bee here so I could apologise for being an idiot, so it's basically been a win all round."

She looked thoughtful. "Is it weird to be pleased about that?"

Bee raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure the internet's got a word for it."

"True that!" Robyn laughed, bounced up out of her seat and held a hand out towards me. "Simone, can I borrow you for two minutes?"

I glanced at Bee, who made shooing motions.

"Go and do girl-things. You need the practice."

I allowed Robyn to drag me to the toilet. She headed for the urinals while I ducked into a cubicle. Afterwards, we regarded each other silently in the mirror over the taps. We both started speaking at the same time, then laughed, which broke most of the tension.

"After you," I said.

"Who hit you? I mean it wasn't, um, Bee was it?" She looked uncomfortable saying it.

"No, not Bee. Actually, it's a short story, but quite a nasty one, which I will tell you later if you feel up to it."

She narrowed her eyes theatrically. "I can't say no now, can I? So. Your turn."

"Penis?" I said. Not exactly the most outré mod, but some people were a bit funny about it.

She nodded. "I went through the same pornstar phase as every other sixteen-year-old, discovered that I didn't care to be male and swapped back. Well, mostly. You mean you've got a vagina? And you were male when you were spiked? That's so weird."

Halfway back across the bar, she pulled me to a halt and leaned in to my ear. "Do you really like that body?"

I smiled. "Yes, I really do. So does Bee, I think."

Her face lit up. "You mean you two are..?"

I shrugged. "Maybe. I hope so. I don't know yet."

Robyn favoured me with an evil grin. "That's almost a shame..."

I blinked. She, er? Oh. Riiight. I couldn't help but grin back.

"God. That's... There's a chapter in the psychiatry manual for people who do that sort of thing. It's called 'Bad and Wrong.'"

She leaned in further to press her boobs against mine. I shivered and tried hard not think about her naked.

"You're no fun," she said, with an over-the-top pout, "It's not like you did it on purpose, is it?"

I shook my head. I didn't trust myself to do anything more than squeak.

"So..?"

"So I have your number, you brazen creature, and I so, so would... But... " I nodded in the direction of Bee.

Robyn laughed and pulled me forward again. "Brazen creature? That's a lovely thing to say."

What are you two so happy about?" said Bee when we slid back into the booth.

"Mysteries," said Robyn. "And happy endings." She turned to me. "So. Let's have the nasty story."

I told her the nasty story with as little emotion as I could manage. Robyn had her hands over her mouth by the time I was half-way through. I still felt weirdly guilty about sharing it with anyone - as if I should apologise for making them listen to my private horrible experience. She was silent when I finished, staring at me with saucer eyes.

"And you think that is somehow connected with me?" she said eventually.

I nodded. "I can't help thinking that one or other of us is in deep trouble. Are you sure that you don't know any angry nutters?"

She shook her head like a child refusing the notion of bedtime. "Nope. But let's have a look at your pictures anyway."

I pulled up the head-shots of ponygirl and tongue-woman and handed her my phone.

"Oh," she squeaked. "That's Lex and, um, Sam. They were in my class at college. I saw Sam last week and Lex is over there with the rest of the mob.

I stared into the middle distance. There was a huge exploded diagram of an Apollo service module across one wall. I was missing something. I could feel that there was a hole, but couldn't fathom the size of it.

Bee scowled. "This is all making my head hurt. How about pausing the investigation for a swift glass of lemonade?"

"Good plan," said Robyn. "I can introduce you to the gang and see if they've got any ideas about stalkers that they've been hiding from me... That is if you, um, don't mind and stuff?"

I wiggled back out of my seat. "Works for me."

* * *

I was drunkenly poking about with the FriendFace on the big monitor in the Parts Dept. when I realised I needed to pee Right Now. I looked across at the corset on top of the pile of discarded clothes. It stopped moving when I closed one eye. By the time I struggled into it, I'd be standing in a warm puddle of my own making. What's the worst thing that could happen in two minutes? I hauled on a t-shirt and tottered towards the door.

This time I wasn't curled up on my own hall carpet.

It felt like I'd jerked awake after catching myself nodding forward. I was in my own spare armchair; the one usually home to a pile of books. Sitting across from me on the sofa was a nondescript sort of man; t-shirt, short medium-brown hair, jeans, trainers; just some random bloke, really. This was sex-perve? I was a little disappointed. I'd expected some flavour of towering muscle-man or a freak in a disturbingly normal suit or, I didn't know, a wild-eyed harpy in designer leatherwear. Instead, my apparent nemesis seemed to be a web designer. He looked up from his mobile.

"... And you're back in the room," he said. There was something about his voice. He crossed his legs at the knee. There was a moment of discomfort on his face, then he shifted his position on the sofa. He clasped his hands together and leaned forward, elbows on upper knee.

"How are you finding that body? Top-heavy and annoying? Good." He nodded to himself. "Men acting surprised when they notice you've got a head and a brain? That is if they manage to tear their eyes away from your cleavage. Back pain? No clothes that fit? Scaffolding for underwear? It must be horrible."

If I'd had a working brain, I would have agreed with the nutter and kept on agreeing until I worked out what was going on. Instead I was bad tempered through unexpected sleep and a medium-rare hangover.

I looked him in the eye. "Actually, no. It's been quite pleasant. For an entirely un-fucking-wanted dose of dodgy nanotech."

He smiled with the bottom half of his face. "Yes, well. You always were a pig-headed bitch."

Oh. So someone from my past then. Who the hell had I pissed off badly enough for this? I mean, I knew some web-designers, some of whom were a bit flaky, but none of them were actually, clinically, barking. And. Where did Robyn and her friends fit in? Bee would know.

There was a groan that came from the direction of by bedroom, followed by some freestyle swearing. Bee. My captor rolled his eyes and stood. He pointed at me. "Sit. Stay," he said.

"Or?"

He glared at me. "Or you'll be dead. Duh."

I couldn't hear what was said in the bedroom, but moments later Bee walked out, holding the back of her head and looking rough. She was followed by my, our, captor, who looked far too pleased with himself for comfort. Bee gave me an awkward one-armed hug and sat on the arm of the chair, leaning against me. I was surprised how pleased I was to see her and twined the fingers of my left hand around her right. I looked up at her, raised my eyebrows and tipped my head a fraction in the direction of web-bloke. She shook her head minutely. Ok, so we weren't going to jump him.

Web-bloke shook his head. "As they probably still say on all the good cop shows, 'Don't get any ideas.'" He brandished his phone at us. "If the screensaver on this activates, so does her nanotech. You'll cook off, dear. I don't think either of you want that to happen."

Bee gripped my hand. It hurt like hell and I stifled a squeak.

"Hello, Dee," she said.

Dee rolled his eyes again.

"Diana, bitch. And could we please stop pretending we're all post-gender now? It's just a mob of fucking men playing fucking dress-up.

Apparently, there were once people who refused to have phones. There were also people who refused to have anything to do with the FriendFace. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that recreational nanotech body-mod rubs some people up the wrong way. 'Post-gender' was one of those throw-away statements made by someone who was about to make a lot of money, or someone writing a profile of same, that was dragged out of context and used as a rhetorical weapon in exactly the same way that 'politically correct' was a century ago. Some people liked to be female, some people liked to be male, others liked to mix and match in order to annoy the squares, and there were some people who really, really didn't hold with any of it and took the entire business as a personal affront.

"Simone, you remember Diana. She was Devin's partner." said Bee, as if introducing us at a cocktail party. Devin? Who the hell was..? Oh. The Arsehole. I'd actually forgotten his name.

"Is, please." Diana looked daggers at Bee. "I don't know what lies this one's been spreading, but he loves me more than ever. When we met at college, we just knew."

"How is Devin these days, anyway?" I said.

Diana glared at me. "You should know, you slut."

I blinked. "Should I? I don't think I've seen him for two years."

"You were talking on the FriendFace last night."

"I... What? I was in a bar last night with Bee."

"Oh, really. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you've managed to turn this one against me, just like the others."

I watched Diana flinch as her phone vibrated. She wiped a thumb across it to stop the screensaver. I started counting in my head.

"Others?" said Bee.

"People are always plotting to take Devin from me. I've stopped them before and I'm going to stop that evil bitch, too. She thinks she's so clever in that body."

"The body that you forced on her."

"I'm just showing off her true colours so everyone can see who she really is. She was pretending to be a woman when she tried to take Devin the first time, but I got him out of that love-nest in Berlin. I paid her back for that. I showed her what men are really like." He turned to me. "That's what you really are, bitch, and it's no more than you deserved."

Diana twitched his thumb across his phone again. Ninety seconds, give or take.

Bee stiffened. "And Robyn?"

"She has to be stopped, too. You all have to be stopped."

Bee lurched upright. Diana met her halfway and walloped her with the fist that held his phone. Bee yelped and crumpled backwards. I was still pushing myself out of the chair when Diana hit me across the side of the head.

I stayed on the floor until the room stopped bouncing. I could taste blood in my mouth where he'd backhanded me. It crackled on my tongue like a handful of space-dust. Of course the sick bastard had had hit me on the left side again, so it hurt twice as much as last time.

"Come on Simon, you useless bitch." He grabbed my upper arm, hauled me upright and propped me against the wall with his forearm across my throat.

He was concentrating on his phone, jabbing at it with his right thumb.

"Just got to put you in a more receptive state of mind, then all this unpleasantness can be over," he said,

I sucked the inside of my cheek as hard as I could. It felt like I had a bulging mouthful of blood and snot and saliva. I tried to crane over his shoulder to see if Bee was moving yet, but he felt me change position and leaned harder on my throat without looking away from his phone.

"Now I will teach you your fucking place." He pushed his face close to mine and held the phone up so I could see his thumb on the 'send' pad.

I gobbed in his face as hard as I could.

"You hateful little slut!" He had enough time to half close his eyes before the fizzing started. He collapsed backwards, spastically rubbing at his face and making a keening noise as his eyeballs boiled dry.

I shuffled past him to check on Bee. She levered herself into a sitting position against the wall and grinned lopsidedly at me. I grinned back. I wanted to crawl under the nearest duvet with her and stay there for a month.

"What in hell did you do to him?" she said.

"Spat in his eyes."

"Holy fuck. Really?" She looked horrified.

"What? Was that not a happening deal?" I glanced round to check that he'd not turned into an avenging monster in the interim.

"If he's lucky, your self-destructing nanotech will burn out while it's still chewing on his optic nerves."

"Oh."

She shrugged and grimaced. "Ow. Shouldn't have done that. Anyway, it's his own fault. Don't fuck with the woman I love."

"Christ!" I bolted upright and lurched toward Diana.

"What? What is it? Do you... Did I?" Bee was looking back and forth between me and the writhing Diana.

"Bee. Angel. Your timing is impeccable, but where's his sodding phone?" I said.

"Here. Catch."

I caught it, more by luck than clear thinking. It buzzed in my hand to warn me that the screensaver was about to turn me into a nasty stain. Diana moaned when I hauled a hand away from his eye socket and dragged his thumb across the face of the phone. The buzzing stopped.

I poked through the applications on the thing.

"Find anything?" Bee had crawled across and was leaning over my shoulder.

"Nothing obvious," I said. I'm sure she meant well, but I wanted her to shut the hell up and let me get on with it.

"What's hooked into the screensaver?" she asked.

Oh. Now I wanted to hug her and tell her she was lovely. I found the running screensaver process.

"That's odd. Why would it be wired to a... Oh."

I started the astrology application. It was an ugly mess of buttons, none of which had anything to do with being a Scorpio.

"Bee. I love you," I said. I yelped and nearly dropped the phone when she tried to hug me and squished my left breast.

"Oh! Sorry! I... Sorry," she said.

I growled and dragged the button-screen to and fro, looking for something incriminating. One of the buttons seemed to be a countdown timer. I poked at it. A box appeared, reading 'Disable watchdog?'. I opted for 'yes'.

The timer stopped. I held very still. Would I be able to feel my nanotech going to work? I guessed that I'd begin to feel feverish first and maybe start to sweat, or glow or something. I looked at the back of my hand, poised over the phone. It still seemed smaller than usual, although it was just lack of hair and a coat of dark varnish on my nails. There was a pain in my chest that was getting worse all the time. Maybe that was it? Maybe I should..?

I took several deep breaths and felt better immediately.

"I think," I said. "I think that's it."

Bee hugged me very gently. "I'm sorry..."

I twisted round. "Stop apologising, dear. It's distracting."

She sat back on her heels. "Do you really?"

"Do I really wha.. Oh. Right, um. How long have you, er..?"

Bee looked down and raked her fingers back and forth on the carpet. "I... You remember the party on that gin-palace?"

I nodded.

"That's when I was going to tell you. I couldn't let you go off with that arsehole. You would have been making a massive mistake. You just weren't thinking straight."

"Uh-huh." I nodded again.

"But it was my mistake to make and my body to make it with." I said it to myself. I felt sick thinking about it, but I couldn't make it un-happen.

"What?" Bee looked up from her carpet-raking.

"Nothing. Go on," I said. Louder this time.

"And then, well, things happened. And I, um, changed back to female because I heard you were a bloke again. I sort of thought that if you dropped by you might..."

Bee looked up again. She was radiating... something. I wanted to recoil as if I had a hangover and she'd been at the garlic sandwiches.

"What do we do about Diana?"

I said it deliberately. Bee looked annoyed, as if I'd stopped her in the middle of something important, but composed herself.

"Better call an ambulance. Your access logs and that phone will show that he was up to no good. Nanotech spiking's still one of those book-throwing offences."

I inspected the control panel on the phone again and poked at the button marked 'change log'. A long list of modifications popped up with an 'on/off' slider next to each. Some of the later ones were... I took a couple of deep breaths and tried not to think about waking up in the morning to discover hooves. The last green-tagged item was named 'remote control'; when I turned it off, a box popped up to tell me that the change was being rolled back. I hesitated a finger over 'Snapshot: Robyn' and looked down at myself. There was a massive greeny-purple bruise on my left breast and four parallel scratches ran diagonally and vanished under the neckline of my top. My heart began to thud when I found the 'flush' button. There was a chime as I poked it and a box reading 'dump active system? Uncomitted changes will be lost.' I tapped the 'go' button and the phone chimed again.

"What did you just do?" Bee craned her head and tried to read the screen upside-down.

"Got rid of my aerial." I took a deep breath. I felt hot with guilt and embarassment; as if I'd just done something really stupid. "I flushed the nanotech, too."

Bee rocked backwards again.

"Oh. Ok. Well, you are utterly cute in that body and it won't take long for your AV vendor to issue a patch and I probably love you more like that than..."

"Bee..?"

"Yes?"

"Please stop."

"I.. Stop? Stop what?"

I looked her in the eye. "Stop sounding like a crazy-ass stalker."

She looked annoyed again and allowed herself a small laugh.

"Oh, now you're just being silly. I love you, and you," she said, pausing to knead my shoulder. "You need looking after."

I grimaced. I probably did need looking after for a while. Crowded station platforms, web-designery men, other people's crazed stalker ex-girlfriends, men in general and probably crowds in general were all going to give me The Fear. I could... I could allow Bee to look after me for as long as it took to get some confidence or to work out if I wanted to be male again or... I hugged my shoulders and concentrated on the floor.

"Bee. Would you please just... go. I need to sleep for about a week, and then I need to work out who the hell I am."

"You're the person I love, you ungrateful cow. And you work for me. You need me if you don't want to be stuck like that for months on end." She tried to make it sound like a joke, but there was a nasty edge to her voice and the implied threat was clear enough.

"Do I?" I sounded bleak. I wanted it to stop. I wanted people to stop being rubbish. Hell, I wanted to stop being rubbish. I hauled myself to my feet and tottered for the door. Bee looked daggers at me from the floor, but managed to barge past me when I got the door open. She turned to glare at me from the lobby.

"You'd better not be doing something you'll regret, missy."

I stared at her. She still looked like Bee, but the more she said, the less I could see of the person I cared about. I wanted to give her another chance to stop talking, but it was long past too late for that. I closed the door and removed her entry from the access control list through a film of tears.



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