The man looked around the room, his hands linked behind his back, his expression blank. He looked like a banker, Rachael decided, balding and shapeless. There was a slight trace of a Scots accent when he spoke, but it sounded like he had been in England for some time. He was probably in his early fifties and he was dressed expensively, if not too fashionably. Money can't always buy taste, Rachael thought.

The bland looking ones were always worst. Rachael's theory was that the more normal someone tried to appear, the more frightening they were on the inside. This one certainly looked like he'd make her earn her fee.

The man bent his knees and squatted in front of a shelf that held a number of interconnected grey, plastic boxes. Rachael found herself admiring the strength of the stitching in the seat of the man's trousers. Why did so many of her customers have to be fat? She worked hard to keep herself in shape. The feeling of wearing a flabby body repulsed her.

"So this is the machine that exchanges our minds?" the man asked.

"Not exactly. I take it this is your first time with a proxy."

The man nodded without looking around. Rachael had given this talk enough times for it to become a chore. She didn't like some of the kinky stuff that usually happened afterwards, but it was still better than boredom. "It simply redirects our sensory and motor impulses. They get read from each of us and routed through the controller here straight into the other person's brain. It seems like we're each other, in control of the other's body and feeling everything they feel, but we're still really ourselves."

"Oh." The man sounded disappointed.

"You wouldn't know it, though. For the time it's running you might as well be me. You won't be disappointed, trust me. No one ever is."

"So what do I have to do?"

"Not a lot." She opened up the little mahogany box she used to store the pickups. "I'll help you put these on. Don't worry - you'll hardly notice them. Your mind will probably be on other things." She gave an approximation of a saucy grin. "Once that's sorted we'll run a few tests and then if everything checks out we'll do whatever you have in mind."

"Fine. What are the restrictions on what we can do?"

Unconsciously, Rachael bit her lip. Her bad feeling about the man worsened. "Well, my basic ground rules are no other people, no animals, no drugs, no watersports and the like, and no serious S & M."

The corner of the man's mouth twitched slightly. "And what do you call 'serious'?"

Shit, she thought. Definitely bad things coming. "Nothing that draws blood. I don't mind spanking, either giving or receiving, but I won't have you leaving any bruises. My body is my livelihood."

"Hmmm..." The man looked uncomfortable. "If I were to ask you to do some things to me, while I was you that is, that might involve bruising, could we come to some arrangement? I could pay for your time while you recuperated."

Rachael tried to smile, but her lips didn't seem to want to respond. "I'm not sure that you could afford to do that. My time is rather expensive."

"That's no problem," the man said, reaching into his inside jacket pocket and pulling out a smart card. "I think you'll find I can pay for quite a lot of your time."

And, to Rachael's dismay, he could.

* * *

Rachael turned the card over and over between her fingers, like a prelude to some magic trick. If she took all the money the man was offering then she would be able to finish paying off both the flat and the proxy controller. It was more money that she had ever been offered for a single job before. She told herself it would be stupid to turn it down. The sooner all the debts were covered, the sooner she could get back to saving for her retirement. Her looks weren't going to last forever, and short of writing an autobiography, she wasn't sure what else she knew what else she could do.

That was it then. She tried to put her misgivings aside. After all, it was only one job. How bad could it be?

* * *

"Is there anything in particular you'd like me to wear? I have a good collection of lingerie, as well as a few exotic costumes. You can look through them if you want."

A distant expression crept into the man's eyes, like he was lost in thought, or trying hard to remember something. His lips smacked silently. "Could you manage a pair of jeans and a loose-fitting jumper? They don't have to be too smart."

Rachael found herself blinking in surprise. "Really? I'm sure I can find something. Hang on." Frowning, she went through to her private bedroom and had a look through her mufti wardrobe. Jeans and a sweater? There had to be a first time for everything.

Before she'd invested the money in the proxy hardware, she had been an ordinary, if somewhat expensive prostitute. During that time she had done a lot of work that involved fantasies and costumes. Since she had adopted her new line of business she had found that it was mostly just the lingerie that got used. Most of the men who wanted to have a taste of life on the other side had pretty fixed ideas of what a woman was. Most of them tended towards a glamour-girl look that bordered on tarty. Her new client seemed a bit different, though. Maybe this was a good sign.

Rachael tended to overdo the makeup and perfume before a session and was a bit surprised when the man had asked her to clean it off. He liked the fresh-faced look, he said. It made Rachael feel vulnerable; the makeup was like a professional mask, hiding her real face from her working life.

There was a tightness in her stomach as she anticipated the hours ahead. Over the years she had developed enough detachment from her work not to be affected by the ordinary stuff, but the prospect of weirdos still made her deeply uncomfortable. Sex itself meant little to her, and once she had got the hang of the male anatomy, of tricks like masturbating herself to maintain an erection, the work became relatively easy. Most of the sessions simply involved the client prancing around in her body for a while, trying on clothes and playing with himself, before launching into a clumsy seduction that offended Rachael's professional sensibilities. A fair few didn't want to bother with her at all and were happy enough with a vibrator or their hands. Rachael just provided an audience and lost herself in her own thoughts. It could be easy money sometimes, if a bit dull.

She found an old pair of designer jeans, now a bit faded, and a jumper that her mother said made her look like Dennis the Menace. It felt strange putting them on for work, almost like the careful wall she had created in her mind between work and her real life was crumbling. She finished off the outfit with a pair of trainers that had been stupidly expensive once, but now looked ready for Oxfam.

After giving herself a quick once-over in the mirror, she decided that she was ready. There was no delaying it any longer.

* * *

"Will this do?" The man looked Rachael over carefully, and nodded.

"Close," he said. "The hair still needs sorting."

Rachael put a hand up to feel her hair. It was elaborately sculpted and lacquered, in accordance with the current fashion. "What's wrong with it?"

"Can you make it a bit more natural? Messy, even."

"Whatever," she shrugged. "You're paying." She went in search of a hairbrush.

After a few minutes' work, Rachael's hair looked shaggy and unkempt. She looked in the bathroom mirror and made a face at herself. It was lucky that the range of the controller wouldn't let them leave the flat. She couldn't bear the idea of anyone she knew seeing her body like this.

As she walked back into the room, the man's face came alive. His eyes opened wide. For a moment Rachael thought it was with fear. "Perfect," he said softly. "Absolutely perfect."

Rachael nodded silently and picked up the box that held the pickups.

* * *

"Do you suffer from motion sickness at all?" Rachael asked as she attached the last pickup to the man's head.

"Not really. Why?"

"Oh, it's just that some people can feel a bit poorly when they switch. It's disorientating having your perspective shifted suddenly. Nothing to worry about in general." Surreptitiously, Rachael wiped her hand on her jeans, trying to clean her fingers of the oils from the man's face. Just touching him had revolted her for reasons she couldn't really describe. He wasn't the ugliest client she'd had by a long way, but the prospect of finding herself inside his body made her feel slightly ill. She clenched her teeth and reminded herself she was a professional.

"I think we're ready for the tests. Stay seated for the moment. You may feel a bit dizzy and confused while it goes on, but that's perfectly normal. We just need to know that your nervous system is up to the strain before we put it under any real pressure."

The man nodded impatiently. "Will it take long?"

"Don't worry," Rachael said as she knelt in front of the proxy controller. "It'll be over before you know it." The button gave a small click as she pressed it. Almost immediately the man's eyes glazed over and his whole body twitched gently, if uncontrollably. The first time Rachael had seen this done she had panicked, thinking something had gone very wrong. Now she simply waited for it to finish. After a few minutes it did.

The man sat back in the chair, panting, his eyes closed. He looked pale and even sweatier than he had done earlier. He gripped the arm of the chair so tightly that Rachael thought he might tear holes in the soft leather.

Rachael knelt beside him. "Are you OK? Should I call an ambulance?" At the mention of the ambulance the man's eyes snapped open.

"No. I'm fine," he said, his voice strained. "It was just a bit more intense than I expected. I'll be all right in a moment."

"If you say so." Rachael watched the colour return to the man's face in slow increments. "Do you need some water?"

"No, nothing, thank you."

After a few minutes the man looked recovered. "Are you up to telling me what happened yet?" Rachael asked.

"It was just the shock of that thing playing with my mind." The man indicated the proxy controller with his thumb. "It's passed now and I'm ready to do it for real."

Rachael snorted without meaning to. "You're joking. There is no way I'm letting you risk it. You're obviously not fit enough to take the strain."

With a movement faster than Rachael would have thought possible, the man grabbed hold of her wrist. The strength of his grip brought tears to her eyes almost immediately. "That doesn't matter," he said, his breath hissing through his teeth. "I'm willing to take the risk."

"Let go!" Rachael tried hard not to scream. "Now!" Almost reluctantly, the man loosened his grip. "Ow! Shit! What the hell are you playing at?"

"Sorry." The man looked away from her, hiding his expression.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. It was an accident. I was just anxious."

"Anxious enough to leave marks." Rachael twisted her wrist, testing the pain. "I don't think there's any permanent damage, but I've still a mind to call the police."

"Look, I said I was sorry. I'll make it up to you. What do you say? Another ten percent on top?"

A small shiver built between Rachael's shoulder blades. "You're insane. I'm not going to take your money now. It's for your own sake. I don't know what's wrong with you, but I don't want to take responsibility if anything bad happens."

"What we agreed before? I'll double it. I'll sign any disclaimer you want. Whatever it takes, we're going ahead."

"Look, this is stupid." Rachael looked up from massaging her wrist. "I mean, why should I..." She caught the man's eyes and her words died in her mouth. For the first time since he arrived, his eyes held something human, almost childlike. They echoed a need which moved and frightened her. "What is it? What's so important to you that you're willing to take that kind of risk?" He just sat there silently. "Being a woman for a day just isn't worth it. Trust me. I've been one for years."

"I don't think I could explain," the man said eventually. "I mean, I could try, but it wouldn't make any sense to you. It's just something that I need to do. To tell the truth, I'm not even sure that I know why myself."

The late afternoon sunlight caught the dust in the air, making Rachael think of pollen. The room seemed very quiet, the noise of the traffic muted and distant. Time passed.

"All right. I'll do it. I just hope it's worth it."

The man's eyes moistened. The corners of his mouth lifted in a bittersweet smile. "Thank you, Samantha," he said.

"It's Rachael."

"Oh yes, of course. Rachael."

* * *

There was a time delay between activating the transfer and it actually starting, which gave Rachael a chance to sit down. After a year of working as a proxy she still dreaded the moment of exchange. Back when she was a teenager, an old boyfriend had taken her on the rollercoaster at Blackpool pleasure beach. She had protested all the way through the queue, but it had been playful. The real fear hadn't started until the car started moving. On the cusp of the first big drop, an overwhelming sense of vertigo grabbed hold of her. Without even realising it was going to happen, she had vomited in freefall, an embarrassment she had never been able to forget. The experience had left her with a cold fear of losing control. Every time, now, that she programmed the controller to reroute her consciousness she had to face that fear. She told herself that doing so made her stronger, but she was still waiting for the strength to present itself.

She looked over at the man, sitting in the padded leather armchair, and made eye contact with him just as the world was pulled out from under her. There was no feeling of falling, just a sudden movement in a direction the brain was never designed to perceive. The feeling of disorientation was as bad every time as it had been on the first. It was like being woken violently from a very deep sleep. Rachael closed her eyes hard and pushed herself back in the chair, willing it to pass. Slowly, she became aware of the feeling of soft leather under her hands. Her breath felt laboured, weighed down by an unfamiliar layer of fat. She consciously released the tension from her muscles and opened her eyes.

The man had recovered more quickly than her and was already on his feet. One wall of the room was dominated by a large, full- length mirror and the man stood in front of it, examining Rachael's body. She watched him silently. Every client she had ever had started examining her breasts or groin first, playing with the new toys. This one didn't even move his hands. He just stood there, examining his borrowed reflection. His lips moved, as if he were talking to himself, but Rachael could hear no sound. Finally, he brought a hand up to his face and traced the shape of it. He nodded in approval and turned around to face Rachael.

"It really works. I knew it was going to, but I suppose I didn't really believe it until now."

Rachael stood up slowly, surprised by the pain involved. The sick ache of arthritis gripped her knees and lower back. She walked over to where the man was standing with small, awkward steps. "How do you like it?" she asked, reaching out to stroke his face.

The man flinched. "Not yet," he said. "Give me a few minutes." Rachael nodded and left the room.

By the light of the fluorescent tube in the bathroom, the man's skin looked even more pale and sickly. She splashed some cold water on it in the hope of making herself feel a bit more alert, but it made no difference. Everything ached. She felt sluggish and tired. Just to top everything off, she could feel a nasty dose of indigestion building.

After drying herself off, Rachael made her way back and stood in the doorway of the room. The man was still looking in the mirror. Something about the intensity of his expression disquieted her. It wasn't an expression that looked like it belonged on her face. Trying not to make any noise, she padded over to the leather armchair and sat down.

The man noticed her after a couple of minutes. "My God. This is remarkable," he said. "It feels absolutely real."

"Good. I like to think I offer good value."

"While I'm like this," the man indicated his torso with a sweep of his hands, "I have a favour to ask. Can you call me Samantha? It's important that you do."

"Yes. Of course, Samantha." At the sound of the name, an expression of fear flashed across the man's face. Slowly, it was replaced with a tentative smile.

Rachael crossed her arms and waited. The man just looked at her, almost timidly. She had seen this a couple of times before, where formerly forceful men became frightened bunnies when placed in a female role. She wondered if it was just a matter of suddenly becoming so much smaller. "So what do you want to do next?"

After a moment's consideration, the man nodded towards the bedroom. Ah, there it is, Rachael thought with some amusement. Maybe he's not so different after all. She followed him through in silence.

The man looked around the room quickly and then sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm not sure how to explain this," he said. "I want you to hit me."

"What, like a spanking?" Rachael thought of the schoolgirl costume she had tucked in her working wardrobe. It had been a while since it last saw any use.

"No." The man shook his head. He spoke very deliberately. "I want you to attack me. You need to pin me down on the bed and punch me in the face and body." .

Rachael tried hard not to shown any reaction. "Why?"

"It doesn't matter. It's just something I need you to do."

"If I'm going to do this, I'm not going to hit hard. The last thing I want is to do some real damage."

The man looked distracted. "It wasn't that hard. It could have been, but it wasn't."

"I'm sorry?"

"Again, it doesn't matter. Do you understand what you have to do?"

"I think so. Am I supposed to say anything?"

"I don't remember," the man said quietly. "I should remember."

"OK, I won't speak. After I'm finished hitting you, then what?"

"Then you leave the room." There was something about the man's tone of voice that made Rachael think she was already supposed to know this. She swallowed hard, hoping the saliva would take some of the bite from the acid in her stomach.

"All right, Samantha." She pulled back a fist. "Whatever you want." The first blow caught the man on the cheekbone and sent him tumbling backwards. He almost fell off the bed, but Rachael pounced on him and held him down. He looked up at her with such an expression of wide-eyed terror that she hesitated,

"No," he said, his voice trembling. "You can't stop now."

Willing herself not to feel anything, Rachael hit the man in the stomach, winding him. The blows came faster and easier. She could feel herself becoming distanced from her actions, her arms pumping like pistons in an unthinking machine. The face and form trapped underneath her seemed alien and unimportant. Her pulse started building in her ears.

It wasn't until the pressure hit her in the chest that Rachael realised that something was very wrong. Suddenly she couldn't breath properly and her arms failed underneath her, and she fell onto her own body.

"What's happening?" With difficulty, she looked up to see herself leaning over, an expression of panic on her face. Disoriented, she could no longer tell who she was supposed to be. An incredible feeling of distance compounded the pain. Was this it, then? Was this death? She tried to fight it, something irrational in her mind telling her that if she could at least hold onto conscious thought then death could never be able to take her.

There was a flicker as her perspective changed violently and she was looking down at the man on her bed, pale and sweating, a look of terror distorting his pasty face. Sickeningly, the view snapped back. She felt herself falling, even though she knew she was already lying down. Somewhere, half out of sight, a young woman collapsed. Everything flashed around her, like the room was lit by a stroboscope. She almost wished for death to come at last, to end the chaos.

And then it was over.

* * *

Rachael felt soft carpet under her cheek. She forced herself to open her eyes, straining at the effort. A quick inventory of sensations told her she was back in her own body, shaken and ill.

Her client. Of course. She sat up as quickly as her body would let her and looked at the prostrate form on the bed. The man looked too still to be alive. A single trickle of sweat ran from his forehead, down his cheek and onto the bedspread. Rachael put an ear to his mouth to listen for breath. The man groaned slightly and Rachael jumped so hard she almost fell off the bed.

"Stay alive," she said quietly. "I'll get an ambulance. Just don't go and die."

She ran back in the next room and called the emergency services. Everything was on autopilot. By the time she hung up she couldn't remember a single word she had just said. Should she do some kind of first aid? She went back through to the bedroom and looked at the man, trying to remember if this was the right time to do mouth-to-mouth or CPR. Shaking, she realised even if it were she didn't really know what to do anyway. The image popped into her head of the paramedics turning up just as she finished killing the man with botched kindness. Hot tears started pouring down her cheeks and her breath broke into sobs.

"I'm sorry, Samantha." The man's voice was little more than a whisper.

"Don't worry about it. Don't talk." Rachael sat on the edge of the bed and took hold of the man's hand. It was horribly cold and clammy. He squeezed back limply.

"I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you."

"It's all right. Really." Rachael ran her hand over the man's face.

"And you forgive me?"

"Forgive you?"

"Yes." The man started trying to force himself up on one elbow. "Do you forgive me?" Every word sounded like it took an impossible amount of effort. "I need to know."

"Of course I do."

A look of absolute peace crept over the man's face. "Thank you, Samantha."

Rachael thought for a moment about correcting him, but somehow knew if she did it would be the worst thing she had ever done in her life.

* * *

By the time the ambulance arrived the man had been dead for several minutes. The paramedics made what looked to Rachael like a valiant attempt to revive him, but it came to nothing. Without knowing exactly why, she was glad that they failed.

After they left, everything suddenly became very quiet and still. Time slowed down a few notches and her mind felt capable of rational thought again.

Rachael caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and for a moment she looked like a stranger, with her untidy clothes and wild hair. She thought about going through to the bathroom to clean herself up. With a bittersweet half-smile, she ran a hand through her hair. Maybe not, she decided. She still didn't know who she was supposed to be, but somehow it seemed fitting that she should be that person for just a little while longer.


(c) 1999 XoYo

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