Sirens snarled through the street outside, easily piercing the thin walls of the Tendali Hotel and dragging me awake in my box-bed. The headache was a doozy this time. Even my neck muscles throbbed as I punched the door open and hauled myself out of the bed. Dim light reflected the time and date at me. Three days since I'd been myself. Mr. Robbins had left half a day early."He's not getting a damn refund," I murmured to the walls as I staggered to the disinfector. The scan flashed brightly over my skin, illuminating me in a sickly green light. No abnormal bruises, no punctures, no scrapes. Mr. Robbins had treated my body well. My cheeks had the usual brush of stubble. My hands... My hands were red. A cut somewhere, something tiny that the scan hadn't picked up. I yelled at the lights for full brightness, to hell with the cost, and inspected every inch. Nothing. I washed my hands in the sink and watched the red swirl away. I would not think of what it was, it was nothing, but my heart was pounding and my fingers on the edge of the sink trembled with secret knowledge. What had Robbins done with my body? I threw some clothes on even as I linked to Jimmy's vidphone. Damn, I was really burning credit now but I had to know. Jimmy's slouch-eyed, pocked face filled the screen. "Yeah Bobby, what's happening?" "Jimmy, that client, Robbins, what's the story with him? Did he go through the regular checks?" He scratched the flat expanse of his nose, always a sure sign he was lying. "Of course, what's the problem?" I stared at Jimmy. He was supposed to be my agent, supposed to be looking out for my interests which was why he took a healthy twenty-five percent off the top of my fee. Yet here he was scratching his nose at me. Lying right to my face while I was in it. "I'd like to see his file," I said calmly. Better not to let on that I suspected the worst, that Robbins had upped Jimmy's side for a skip on the usual checks. "Well, I'll have to dig that up." Jimmy's finger worked overtime on the side of his nose. "It won't be easy to find. Give me your address and I'll link it over to you..." I broke the connection. Sure he'd link it over, just after he called the cops and pointed them in my direction. My stomach clenched around nothing. Shit, they might already be on their way. Packing took hardly any time and I was out of the hotel and on the street inside ten minutes. Half a block away, the sirens screamed again and I ducked into a noodle shop just as they descended onto the hotel roof. Jimmy hadn't wasted any time. I hoped his commission was worth it. He'd never represent another body renter again. If I lived long enough to squeal. I let the crowd sweep me away from the hotel. Robbins had inhabited my body for only seventy-two hours, obviously long enough to do something horrible. I had no memory for that time. Being a body renter brought in good money but it was also expensive as hell. My monthly insurance bill alone was well over ten thousand. Not having all the usual safety implants heightened that bill but it also brought in a higher paying clientele. Sure it was risky but it was a risk I was comfortable with and prepared for, or so I'd thought. I hadn't anticipated Jimmy's treachery. The high pitched whine of tracker cams drew my attention. I had to get off the street. I ducked into the nearest train station and hurried down the stairs. The electrical fields of the supertrains distorted the tracker cam signals, making it difficult for them to function underground. I dug into my pocket for credits and came up with only enough to get me to the next station. I tossed it at the ticket box and slid through the scan gate. A train pulled in, warm air hissing in front, ruffling my hair. The safety shield shimmered and vanished to allow entry. As I lined up to enter, a high pitched whine made me look back. A tracker cam. Had it spotted me? Silver thin antennae waved in the air. It looked harmless but I knew each of those antennae held a camera, capable of everything from regular imaging to infrared and more. If they'd managed to get a visual of me from Jimmy that tracker would hone in on me in a second. The fat man in front of me shuffled slowly forward. I itched to push past him but any sudden movement could draw the attention of the tracker cam. In agony, I waited for him to slouch on board. I slid in as three of the antennae swivelled to point at me. I tried to push deeper into the train but the crush of people made it impossible. The tracker cam hovered forward. Twenty metres, fifteen. Any second it would raise an alarm. My body tensed, muscles trying to shrink themselves as small as possible. Ten meters. The train signal chimed and the safety shield snapped up. The tracker cam, now weirdly distorted in the flickering wave of the shield, disappeared as the train shot out of the station. I sagged as all my muscles relaxed. Close, but I'd been lucky. Yeah, right, if I was so lucky I wouldn't be in this mess, and I didn't even know what kind of mess. Time to find out. I jumped train at the next station and made my way out to the street. Although it was almost midnight, hovering streetlights created an artificial day. Crowds wound along like a multi-coloured snake, darting in and out of open doorways and shallow alleys. Drugs, both chemical and virtual, changed hands many times over. Sex was negotiated by a raised brow. Everything and anything was for sale. I had always accepted that as the nature of things. You had a product and you sold it. Even trade. But now I felt used, betrayed. I always thought I knew the ways of the street but the landscape had been changed and I didn't know what to do. I hated the thought of the public phones, so demeaning not to mention dangerous, but I had no choice. I punched in her number and my access code. The video remained stubbornly black, even when the audio clicked on. A deliberate slight. "What do you want, Bobby?" "I need your help, Sacha." I could hear her sigh heavily, could imagine her rolling her dark brown eyes. "What is it this time?" "Can I come up? This is a public line." "Public? Dammit. Yeah, come up." The line closed. I ducked out of the booth and into the crowd. Hopefully, there was no trace or Sacha would definitely kill me. The alley looked like any other, strewn with garbage, food bits and archaic computer boards. As I passed the first set of garbage cans, I could almost feel the sensors break and the scan begin. Sacha was always careful. By the time I reached the back of the alley, the scuffed brick shimmered and vanished, revealing a dark grey steel garage door. Silently it rose, both wide enough and tall enough to admit a small tank. I nervously stepped over the threshold, aware of the foot thickness above my head. If I'd caught Sacha in a bad mood... I'd barely make a bump on the door's track. But Sacha must have been feeling charitable and the door closed harmlessly behind me. The interior of the building was gutted down to the bare brick. Out of the shadows, Sacha walked forward. She stood several inches taller than the last time I'd seen her. Her hair was now blonde, short and spiked up. She crossed her arms over her leather vest and glared at me from five feet away. "Why are you calling me from a public phone?" she snarled. "I had no choice. My agent's turned on me. I woke up from a renting job with blood on my hands." There. I'd said it, made it real. My knees trembled. Something flickered across Sacha's face. She clenched her teeth. "Dammit, Bobby, can't you try to stay out of trouble?" She turned away and starting walking across the floor toward the front of the cavernous room. I followed from a distance, just to be safe. Her words had the comfort of familiarity. I'd heard them many times over the course of our relationship, the last time in a loud shout as she slammed the door in my face. At least she wasn't slamming the door this time. Yet. She sat at a table covered with computer parts. At her gesture, I sat in a chair beside her. "Who was your client?" she asked. "He said his name was Robbins. Jimmy swore he did the checks but I think Robbins paid him off to skip them." "Okay. I can read the ident from your tracer chip." She rummaged on the table among the scratched tools. "Sacha, I don't have a tracer chip." This time I got to see her roll her eyes. "Dammit, Bobby, why don't you have a tracer chip?" "I get more money," I said defensively. "If they know I can't find them or know what they did with me, they pay more." "You're damned trusting." "It's never been a problem before. I get all my shots." "Yeah, like a dog. Well, maybe we can get something off the blood on your hands." I held them out to her. "Sorry, I washed it off." Her grin showed off her teeth. "Not well enough, I'll bet." She spent the next five minutes poking at my fingers with tweezers, tugging tiny shreds from underneath my fingernails. When I yelped, she glared and continued on. Finally she finished and slid a wafer holding the skin cells into a microreader. "This'll give me the blood type and if there's enough, a DNA sample," she said. "Then I plug into the Mainline and find a match. That'll tell us who the blood came from." I stayed silent. Hacking was Sacha's specialty. The holograph fields of the network rose like a shimmering wave as her fingers danced over keys. Soon it enveloped her and she was deep in the Mainline. I sagged against my chair, watching her hands arc through the air, her body shifting. It called up memories best left forgotten. Like most of my real memories, they brought only pain. Probably why I became a body renter, I thought. Easier to deal with life when you don't remember. Now it didn't seem like such a good idea. Maybe it was time to try something else. "You are fried." Sacha's voice brought me out of my brooding. "What'd you find?" "His name was Theodore Brice Garant. Recognize him?" My jaw dropped open. "Garant? He owns half of everything and has a lien on the other half. He owns all the patents on the body renter implants." "If he's such a smoker why'd he hook into a low level like you?" Why indeed? Sacha's jab didn't bother me. I knew my limits. The only reason I did as well as I did was because I had no tracers. "There's something else, Bobby." I knew even before she said it, knew it the minute I'd seen the blood. "He's dead." So was I the minute I stuck my head out. Sacha hunched her shoulders. "Listen, Bobby..." I didn't want to hear her ask. The chair scraped the concrete floor as I stood up. "I have to go." The relief in her eyes was unmistakable. At least she had the decency to glance away. "Sorry." I left quickly, not wanting to drag it out. As the door slid open, Sacha pressed a credit chit into my hand. Briefly she looked up at me, perhaps to see if I was going to refuse. But I didn't. I knew it was the most she could give. Out on the street, the crowds had thinned. I wandered a maze of darkened streets, following the flicker of neon and alarm shields. Finally I glanced at the chit Sacha had given me. It stopped me cold. A million. It brought a rush of feeling: relief that now I could take care of myself, anger that she thought I'd need it, wonder at how she could so casually give it, and shame at how once again I needed someone else to bail me out. But she'd made it clear this was all I'd get. I was on my own. First I had to find out exactly what had happened to Garant, maybe find out which of his many enemies had rented my body to kill him. I couldn't trust the cops. Without a tracer I had no proof that my body had been rented and I was sure Jimmy had been paid well for a convincing denial. So the place to start was with Garant. Four hours later I was on the six am shuttle out of Tokyo, heading for Toronto and Garant's head office. Some of Sacha's million had paid for a quick face and body job, nothing permanent, I didn't have the time, but it would last long enough for me to slip through the cracks. I'd even splurged and gotten the pheromone and DNA switch as well as a change in finger prints. It was expensive but it allowed me to relax enough to catch some sleep on the shuttle. I dreamed I was in a castle. The ceiling arched above my head, round globes of light hovered near the second storey. In front of me stood an older man, shoulder length hair grey, his face unlined but with the perfect sheen of cosmetic surgery. He blinked at me in slow motion, his mouth opened to speak. I lifted my hand to shake his and he sagged forwarded against me. I staggered beneath his weight. When I pushed him away, I saw the knife in my hand, the blood... I woke up with a jerk as the shuttle landed. Was it a memory? I shouldn't have been able to recall anything. The mysterious Mr. Robbins had been in possession of my body. Hadn't he? I pushed the thought away as I passed through customs and hailed a untraced groundcar outside the shuttle port. It was too scary to think about. I was sure I knew my own mind. The ride to Garant's home was uneventful and soon the groundcar deposited me outside the gates to his massive home. The antique sign told me the name of the place: Casa Loma. God, it really was a castle. Sweat trickled down the side of my new face. What the hell was going on? I had to find out. The gate was closed but not locked. I eased in and headed for the front door, trying not to think of all the security alarms I was surely tripping. As I approached, the door opened. A stooped old man in a spotless grey suit nodded to me. "We're glad you could come on such short notice," he said. "It's been a difficult time." "Of course," I said, wondering who he thought I was but I wasn't going to make the mistake of asking. Maybe I could learn something this way. I followed him into the front hall and stopped cold. My dream memory. I felt the blood drain from my face. The old man mistook my reaction. "It is impressive, isn't it? Mr. Garant has such a flair for the dramatic." He stopped. "Had." "Can you tell me what happened?" I asked. "I'm not sure exactly. Somehow an intruder got past the alarms and into the house. Mr. Garant surprised him here in the hall. They struggled but Mr. Garant was fatally stabbed. Mrs. Garant was found upstairs." The old man frowned. "She's in a coma." I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat. The harsh taste burned my mouth. "What happened to Mrs. Garant?" "That's what we're hoping you can answer, doctor. None of the others could tell us anything. You came highly recommended." He walked away, leaving me blinking stupidly. I scrambled to catch up. What the hell was I going to do? He thought I was a doctor, some specialist. Don't panic, maybe somehow I could fake enough to get through it and learn more. I needed to know exactly what had happened. What had Robbins done with me? I followed the old man up a sweeping staircase. The banister slid smoothly under my fingers. I realized with a start it was real wood polished to a sheen. Mrs. Garant lay in a large bed in one of the second floor rooms. Rich looking blue curtains pulled back from the windows let in the sunlight but as I walked through it I didn't feel any warmth. Artificial. Probably the windows were covered with steel shutters, the sunlight and view outside projected on the inside. There were no visible medical monitors although I was certain the bed was probably a smart-bed and monitored her closely. She lay on her back, her arms at her sides. Brown hair spilled around her head. Her eyes were closed and her breathing regular. My hands clenched as I looked at her. I wasn't sure what I was thinking. The old man turned to me expectantly. "I would like to examine Mrs. Garant alone," I said. He started to protest, but stopped when I held up a hand. "I am a professional. Did you not ask for the best?" He looked unhappy but slowly retreated from the room. As the door closed behind him, I turned back to the unconscious woman on the bed, wondering what I was supposed to do now. My hands moved, reaching for the bedside table. I watched them in surprise. What the hell was going on? It was like watching someone else's hands. The drawer of the bedside table opened, exposing the controls for the smart bed. My hands reached in... I lurched myself back several steps. My hands still reached for the drawer. Forget it, I thought, not without some answers. I already suspected what was going on. My hands reached again and my left leg slid forward. No, you don't, I thought and forced myself back until I felt the door behind me. Parts of my body twitched but I still had control over most of it. I waited. I can help her. The voice in my head was quiet, almost a part of me but I knew it wasn't. Somehow Robbins had stayed through my awakening. It was supposed to be impossible but I couldn't worry about that now. You killed Garant, I thought. It was necessary, the voice said. Right and I get blamed, I thought. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Something went wrong. I knew he meant Mrs. Garant's coma. What did you do to her? I could feel anger stirring, tinged with hatred. She deserved it, she betrayed me. I blinked stupidly. You're Garant! My legs lurched forward. My distraction had allowed him to gain access to my body. I struggled to pull back but slowly my feet inched forward, toward the open drawer. How, why? I asked. Garant didn't answer. He forced me forward. Sweat trickled down my back and matted my hair. I could feel my heart pounding with the exertion. If we didn't stop struggling against each other, it would tear my body apart. Just tell me what's going on, I thought. My hands closed on the drawer, fingers reaching inside. I recognized the whisper-thin wires of a mind transferer complete with the stylized "G" logo for Garant Industries. It was a Model 97-A100, standard for body renters the world over. A rush of triumph washed over me as my fingers closed on the pin ends. His triumph. My despair. As he lifted the wires using my fingers, I ploughed into his memories. I saw Mrs. Garant, awake, face animated, laughing, a hand caressing the shoulder of a younger man. Then the echo of arguments and anger, desperation turning to rage and then hatred. More wires dangling, attaching her not to my body, but to Garant, then Garant to me. He killed her, I realized. Transferred her mind to his body, then used me to kill her. My fingers expertly attached the wires to her forehead. Yes, the voice echoed in my head. I was going to transfer into her but the police came too quickly. How convenient that you chose to look for Mr. Robbins. He was leaving me to take the rap and I knew what that meant. A full brain wipe. My fingers pressed the wires to my temples just as I began to panic...
x x x
A new switcheroo—so much more satisfying than the old switcheroo. This tale impressed me with its convoluted yet well wrought plot line. Hope you liked it, too. Let me know on our BBS. -GM