The Exchange--1

She was starting to think the call would never come.

She(or 'sie'--that was the whole point of this, wasn't it?)had scanned the Origin display for every incoming call at first, hoping each would be the one. Sie had been slowly distancing hirself from hir associates, to ease the transition, so sie didn't expect to get too many other calls. The first month, sie found hirself nearly biting the heads off of the wrong numbers that sie had previously taken in stride. Careless people who didn't take care in their pronunciation-- most of these late at night or in the early morning, to top it all off. Sie was tempted to screen all calls except for the one source, but decided that was too drastic a step.

As time dragged on, sie was glad sie had not, because the simple requirements of paying the bills--and keeping a sufficient bank balance to eventually pay for the process--made it necessary to maintain at least a few contracts over the interval. They had warned hir, sie recalled ruefully, not to get hir hopes up. Bone marrow donors could expect shorter waits then sie. And hir condition was far from terminal. Or so they said...but sometimes sie wondered how long sie would be able to last.

They'd asked hir what kind of donor sie was willing to take.

"I'm not sure what you mean," sie said.

Hir counselor coughed in embarrassment. "Well, you see, there are two main kinds of transplants, each with their advantages and disadvantages--living donors and non-living. 'Non-living' is used in a purely mental context, in this case. The only ones of those we're allowed to use are ones with no physical deterioration, so there's a definite time factor. Also, the permission of the family, or clear mandate in the will or living will, have to allow the procedure.

"The living donors, on the other hand, will be more like your opposite number. There, it will be a true exchange."

At this point, sie still hadn't adjusted to the opportunity they were offering hir. "Which--which is better?"

"Neither, really. When we started out, the non-living donors were the only kind we could deal with, but the few living exchanges we've done have been, on the whole, more successful."

"Is it dangerous?"

Hir counselor coughed again. "Technically, no. The process is completely safe--otherwise we wouldn't be able to offer it at all except in life-threatening emergencies. But sometimes it doesn't have all the results that could be wished for. In taking over a non-living body, some of our past patients have manifested guilt complexes-- sometimes exacerbated by the body's former relatives and friends, who tend to express grief-induced rage at the 'theft' of the loved one's body. Exchanges are more successful in this regard, because both parties are still present."

"Which is more common?"

"We don't have any of either 'on hand' at the moment, but at this point, they are about equal. The success rate of the exchanges is making more willing to hold out for them, and the failure rate of non- living transplants are making people unwilling to provide for donorhood. We don't know the long-term trends, but that's how it sits right now."

Sie shifted uncomfortably in hir chair. This stupid body was in another of its bloody periods--quite literally, sie thought with little humour. Sie had originally been planning to do something about those when this alternate plan had been proposed to hir. Now sie thought sie was beginning to see why. "One more thing--if I get a 'non-living'"(why couldn't he just say 'dead', fuck euphemism) "transplant, what happens to my body?"

"We maintain it as long as we can, but if there were a taker for it, an exchange would have been done in the first place. It can be broken down for other transplants if you wish. We wouldn't recommend that you have much more to do with it."

Sie had a brief, macabre image of this body sitting stuffed in a corner of her house, and sie giggled. At hir counselor's raised eyebrow, sie stifled it. "Well, I--I'm not sure. I think, at this point, I'd take either."

"Any preferences as to body type, size, race, hair colour...?"

Sie laughed. "You must be joking. Anything male would be better than this."

Hir counselor also reassured her about the changes sie'd already made to her body before taking this step. "This is another advantage of the exchange--both parties can bring themselves closer to a neuter 'mean', and then the processes slowly reversed to make the transition less of a shock. We don't have the time to make those kinds of changes to a non-living body, and the suddenness of going from 'female-almost-male' to utterly male is traumatic, even without the guilt syndrome I mentioned earlier."

Sie saw his point, but imagined sie would fret at the delay anyway, even knowing its wisdom.

When the call finally came, sie was just finishing up a contract and wondering where the next would come from--nothing had turned up yet. Sie wondered if sie had alienated hirself from too many people.

In an idle moment, sie'd reprogrammed her phone receiver to play different soundfiles for calls from different numbers. Sometimes even sie had trouble remembering what her thought processes had been when sie picked certain songs, so sie was at first nonplussed when it started playing 'Get Back' by The Beatles. Hir mind raced through the song's lyrics, wondering what association had led to it, and then stopped dead in the second verse. "Holy shit!" sie crowed, automatically hitting 'Save' even as sie ran for the phone.

"Which is it?" sie said as soon as sie saw hir counselor's face.

He stopped in mid-word, smiled, and said, "An exchange."

Yes! Hir heart started beating frantically, and sie began to feel light-headed. "So now what?" sie said as calmly as she could, which wasn't very.

"Well, first of all I'll send you hir file. Sie has been keeping hirself fit, so you should have no complaints that way. And then, at your earliest convenience, the both of you will meet. Either of you can back out at any time, and you'll be put back on the waiting list."

"Not unless sie's a residual HIV carrier," sie said under hir breath. "If it's okay with my--donor, I'd like to get it done as soon as possible. As of tomorrow, I have no other commitments."

"Wonderful," hir counselor said, smiling. "Sie's just as anxious."

Before going to hir counselor's office the next day, sie took unaccustomed pains with hir appearance. Sie felt silly the whole time sie was doing it--it wasn't like sie really had to 'sell' hir body, if hir opposite number was in any way as desperate as sie--but sie felt better for having done it. Still, the process was enough to make hir glad sie would, with any luck, not have to do it for much longer.

Hir heart was pounding as sie stood in the elevator. Sie knew it probably wasn't much worse than before any of hir job interviews or presentations, but it seemed like it. After all, making a poor impression at this first meeting could mean the end of hir chances. But, as usual, sie took a few deep breaths outside the door, and sie had once again regained hir control.

Hir counselor was not there yet, but there was a plain but smartly- dressed woman sitting nervously on the couch, who flinched visibly at the sound of the door opening. Had sie mistaken the time? "I'm sorry--" sie began.

"No, that's all right," the woman said in a surprisingly deep voice.

Sie did a mental double-take. Of course. This was hir--what to call him? partner? donor?

He smiled. "I do catch people off guard the first time. I'm Raphael, or Rowena, as I like to call myself. And you are...?"

"Crystal. Or just Tal."

He raised his eyebrow. "I would've expected Chris...but that is a more creative diminutive. Raphael doesn't have any good feminine relatives, but I have always liked the name Rowena, and this way I can keep the same initial. I also played a character by that name on stage, so I got experience in answering to the name."

"You're an actor, then?"

"Oh, I try. Just...alternative clubs right now. Well, drag shows, really, but we try to maintain an air of dignity about them. I'm hoping to move beyond that a bit, though." That seemed to remind him why they were both here, and he quieted. "Ummm...Dr. Hendrickson just went out to get a coffee, and he said he'd probably be back before you arrived..."

"I'm just a bit early, as usual," sie said, a bit embarrassed.

"Oh, that must be nice. I can never manage to do that--always too many things cropping up at the last minute. Drives my directors nuts."

"So I see you've met," Dr. Hendrickson said from the doorway, smiling with that look that told hir that he'd planned it that way from the start. "Listen, something's come up, so I won't be able to see you until 1:00. Why don't you go have lunch?"

"Fabulous idea," Raphael(Rowena?) said. "I know this lovely place, I used to eat there when we were at the Sunset. Join me?"

"How can I refuse?" sie said, grinning.

"So do you mind if I ask personal questions?" Raphael said after they'd ordered. "Our good Doctor is just going to ask them anyway, or probably has them all written down on his little forms, and this place gets so loud nobody would hear the answers anyway."

Sie nodded. "Fire away."

"Okay, so which way do you swing? Oh, that's such a crude way of putting it. What's the polite one? Are you het or gay? I should say, first off, to get the ball rolling, that I am het now, and hope not to remain so 'afterward'. Just don't have much use for men, myself. I know this may surprise you, coming from a 'drag queen', but somehow I just never quite fit in, that way. But here I am babbling again. Which are you, then?"

"I hadn't really thought about it," sie said honestly. "My sex life has only been theoretical for so long... I have 'swung' both ways, but I always thought of myself as primarily het. As for afterwards-- who knows?"

"Very sensible way of looking at things, if you ask me. Wish I could stick to something like that, but I'm irretrievably biased, I must say. Ah, here's the food."

They ate in thoughtful silence. After the meal he said, "Do you know the details of how this works, by the way?"

"How what works?" sie said.

He waves his hands all-encompassingly. "This 'switch' operation. Do they make our brains swap bodies, or what?"

"Well, as I understand it--and I have grilled Dr. Hendrickson extensively on it, and read the literature and all that--it's more like reformatting a floppy disk and copying new information on it. They do a bunch of scans on our brains, record the information, and then use some magnetic technique to reorganize our neurons into the new configuration."

"Ah! That makes sense. Are they sure all this works?"

Sie nodded. "I did an article on it for 'Science Today'. They started out with lower animals, then primates, and finally onto a few experimental subjects whose brains were already scrambled. At the moment they can only do a wholesale copy, but they're trying to do more specific tasks, like copying just pieces, like skill at playing clarinet, or memory of having read 'War And Peace' to save us from actually having to go through the book. With optional Cliff Notes."

"It's this erasing stuff that gets me. I'd hate to think what the military are doing with it." He shuddered. "So you're a science writer?"

"Freelance, really, but I do a lot of science writing, the result of a few misspent years in university before I switched majors. I've been writing under a pseudonym for years, actually--you've probably seen those books..."

"Oh, yes, of course! Tal Adams, wasn't it? I should have thought of that when I heard the name. One of my fellow performers was all into that popular science stuff, reading anything he could get of Gould, Asimov, Sagan, Sacks--and you, among others... Is this all going to be a book, someday?"

Sie shrugged. "I don't know. I hope so. I haven't written anything serious in a while...just technical stuff to pay the bills." Sie stirred hir coffee in silence.

He nodded. "I think I know what you mean. It all gets a bit pointless after a while, doesn't it, when there's something fundamentally wrong deep down?" He glanced at his watch. "Well, that's what we hope to do something about here, don't we? It's almost one--let's go back up and see if Doc thinks we've chatted long enough yet." He winked at her. "Let's see if we can stick him with the bill for this meal."

Sie laughed.

Dr. Hendrickson confirmed Tal's information about the operation. "It's actually more complicated--and risky--with an exchange. With a direct transplant, you can just write directly from one brain to the 'blank' copy. But we can't do that in your case, because both brains contain vital information."

"Oh, dear," Raphael said. "So how does it work? Do you load one of us into RAM first, and hope there's no power failure?"

Dr. Hendrickson smiled. "No, not quite. Although we do keep backups of the information as we transfer it, in case we have to do an abort. So far that hasn't happened, though. No, what we do is more like reading a 'block' of data from each brain, confirming it, and then writing them to the corresponding blocks on each other. Of course, first we have to map out where each block is in each patient, since there is some variance.

"We also have to carry out the process as quickly as possible, because it has to be done while the brain is dead. Otherwise natural processes will modify the neuron patterns before the write is complete. We can restart you again without effort afterwards, though." He glanced at both of them. "We've never had a hitch in this process before, but there are risks. Maybe one day this will be something you do just like getting a facelift or tummytuck, but right now it's a bit more hazardous. If you're not utterly serious about this, now's the time to find out."

They were both silent for a few seconds, then Raphael said, "Doc, if we thought we had any other way out, don't you think we'd have tried it by now?" Sie glanced over at him, and for a moment sie saw his eyes filled with a desperation sie'd seen in the mirror too many times. Wordlessly sie turned back to Dr. Hendrickson and nodded.

"Okay, then. I just thought I'd double-check. There'll be waivers and all that to sign. Now, I'm afraid the earliest we can schedule the operation is about three months from now."

Sie swallowed a feeling of disappoinment. Three months may seem like a long time to last waiting for a call, but sie told hirself that with the exchange a foregone conclusion, the time would pass more easily, if not necessarily more quickly.

"In two months, we'll have to have you in several times a week for scanning--that block-mapping that I mentioned earlier. It's possible that we may find intrinsic incompatibilities in this process--one of you missing a block entirely, for instance, and the data farmed out to other areas of the brain. In that case you'd both go back on the waiting list, with priority. Again, it's not very likely, but we'd like to find that out now rather than during the exchange.

"And if either of you needs to talk to me before the operation, about anything at all, just feel free. I don't want to lose either of you now."

To be continued...

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey /