"No, you don't understand. I'm a woman."
"I don't know what to tell you," the nurse replied. It sounded like a well-rehearsed speech. "You're lucky to be alive. There were only a certain number of donor bodies within reach of us, and this one happened to be a close enough cognitive match for you."
"Get the fuck away from me."
Sally was more furious than she'd ever known she could be. At the driver of their bus; at the company who hired the texting fucker; at her insurers for invoking her once per lifetime re-bodying plan without consulting her first in VR; and at herself for not having read the fine print on that plan.
The nurse sensibly didn't stick around to argue.
"You can tell that guy never questioned his gender, right?" said a feminine voice from behind the curtain.
Sally fumbled for the remote control attached to the bed, and pressed the button to open the curtain to the left. The pale turquoise sheet slid aside, putting the bed next to hers, and its occupant, on display. It was a short woman with straw blonde hair fizzing out of her in waves; she was maybe in her mid thirties.
"I'm Thomas," the occupant said.
"Oh!" Sally exclaimed.
"I know, right?" Thomas replied with a wry smile. "Gonna have to start all over again with this one. And it's so short. I can't fucking believe it."
"I'm Sally. You were in the crash too?"
"Yup. Second row back on the right. You?"
Sally thought back to the trip she'd been on. The Speed Corp bus journey from Bristol to London Victoria. She'd been, what, four or five seats back? Seat 17.
"I had a window seat..." she trailed off. She'd seen the CCTV footage on the news. At the time she must have heard the horn of the oncoming lorry as the bus had swerved onto the wrong side of the road. She'd have heard the skidding of wheels, the buckling of metal... but she didn't remember any of it now.
She'd just woken up here, in this hospital bed, with someone explaining what had happened. She'd thought she was hoarse to begin with, but then she'd looked down at herself. Lifted up the sheets to see the hairy, flat chest and... she'd started hyperventilating. Then it had gone black again; perhaps she'd passed out, perhaps they'd just put her back under on purpose.
Her situation hit her again. Her chest clamped around her lungs as the heart rate monitor next to the bed began to beep extremely fast.
"How—" she gasped. "How—"
"Hey, relax," Thomas said, not unkindly. "Or—"
An alarm sounded, and two doctors came running in. Sally saw one wielding a syringe and jumped up, inadvertently knocking over the IV pole next to the bed with a clatter. The other doctor caught her as she tripped, and wrestled her back into the bed, shouting instructions to the other about doses.
A pinprick in her arm and her body went limp, collapsing back into the uncomfortable mattress. The bed let out a metallic clang of distress.
"Too late, sorry," Thomas said. "I'll catch you again when you wake u—"
"But we're one man and one woman," Sally frowned. "How did..." she gestured between the two of them, "this happen?"
"You mean how did I end up with Miss Frizz here and you with that—" Thomas looked her over "—Don Draper thing going on?"
"I don't know who that is."
"Old TV. Doesn't matter," Tom waved his hand. "You're in a guy's body. I'm not. It sucks."
"But they could have given me that one," Sally pointed at Thomas, "and you this one."
"Yeah, someone fucked up. I need to talk to my specialist and work out what went wrong," Thomas sighed. "Maybe we can arrange something between us. You got private insurance, by any chance?"
"As it happens, yes, but it was a shitty plan. I thought I was going to get a whole consultation process here, but it turns out in emergencies none of that applies. And this was my one re-bodying covered by the plan. I might as well have stayed on the NHS. You?"
"Hah, no way. I was just a delivery driver, zero hours contract and all. Trust me, if I could have afforded a new body by now, I'd have already got one."
"You ... weren't happy with your original one?"
Thomas let out a miserable laugh. "That's fucking ironic. In my old body it was so obvious. This one, suddenly it all gets to be a mistake."
"How do you mean?"
"I'm a guy, Sally, but my previous body was female. I'm trans. Just started on T—Testosterone—a few months ago. I can't afford a whole new body, yeah? So. Doing it the long way round."
"Ah," Sally nodded. "So the doctors here got your old body in, decided to put you in one of the same sex."
"Yeah." Thomas snorted. "They must have thought I was a better match for this body than you were."
"Hence needing to talk to your doctor."
"Yup. The doctors here should have had my records. As I said. Someone's fucked up."
"Hi, I'm Sally. I own a coffee shop in Bristol and when I'm not at work I like reading modern fantasy."
"Hi, Sally," the rest of the support group dutifully replied. Six people, including herself and Thomas. She looked at each of them in turn, trying to dispel the subconscious assumptions she was making about each of them based on their appearance. She didn't want to be here, but it was either this or sit bored in her bed. Thomas had said it might help.
"I don't have much to say. Before the crash I was a brown-haired five foot seven Caucasian woman. And now I'm this six foot whatever guy. I'm... fucking angry."
She took a deep breath to calm her nerves.
"I know what the rest of you are thinking. I'm alive, right? Sure. Yes. But that's so black and white. Say I were to go into hospital at some point for heart surgery. It goes fine, but the surgeon accidentally removes my arm as well. So they saved my life, but that wouldn't stop anyone filing a malpractice suit against them, right?
"And this is worse than losing an arm for me. I look down at myself and everything is just... wrong. I hear myself speak, and I hate it. I'll scratch my face, and recoil at the stubble on it. I'll look in a mirror, and catch myself thinking—" her voice broke "—how handsome the guy in the room with me is, before realising that it's actually me and suddenly—I can't breathe. I—"
Sally's vision was starting to tunnel. She sat back down in the chair and lowered her head as far as it could go.
"I'm sorry," she said to the room. "I can't—"
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
"It's okay. Deep breaths." It was Thomas.
Sally took five cycles of air before she felt well enough to look up. The rest of the group were looking at her concerned but ultimately unable to relate to how she was feeling.
"Okay," the group supervisor announced feebly. "Let's ... take five."
"I need to not be here," Sally said quietly to Thomas.
"Gotcha. Let's go back to the ward."
Thomas helped Sally stagger the hundred metres down the corridor, back to the cognitive transplants ward. She was sure she looked ridiculous. Thomas sat her down on her bed and took his place on his, opposite her. He put his elbows on his knees and cupped his face in his hands, looking directly at her. He looked genuinely upset.
"A little. Thanks."
"Sorry I talked you into going to that."
How was he coping so much better than her? Then she realised.
"Oh my god. You've felt like this since forever. You're not coping better than me; you're just used to feeling like this."
Thomas nodded, his lips tight.
"What was your old body like?"
Thomas closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them and laughed.
"Covered in acne!" he exclaimed. "My face was not enjoying the testosterone. Fair to say the rest of me was, though. I was working out. Actually putting on some beef for the first time ever." He sighed. "I was on the bus to go see my specialist, get my levels checked."
"You must be pretty envious of me, getting this bod rather than you."
"Yeah. But, I wouldn't wish your situation on anyone."
Thomas' eyes jumped left as he saw someone approaching their beds. Sally turned around as well to see a doctor approaching. It wasn't one she'd seen here before: about her old height, with Asian heritage.
"Good morning Thomas, and you must be Sally," she said, extending a hand. Sally dutifully shook it; she feared she may have squeezed a little too hard.
"This is Doctor Kingston," Thomas told her.
"Would it be okay with you to discuss things in front of Sally?" Kingston asked him. Thomas nodded. "Good, because this might concern you too, my dear."
"What do you mean?"
"So. I've been in several meetings today trying to sort this out. My notes had indeed been correctly entered into the system; it looks like the surgeons just plain didn't read them." She sighed. "Probably due to the rush when the ambulances came in, not that that's an excuse. Needless to say, everyone involved is horrified."
"Why should they be horrified about me, when Sally here just got told to shut up and go to counselling?"
A flicker of frustration swept across Dr. Kingston's face. "This is new technology. My group warned them about this; better to keep you on VR until a better donor could be found." She took in a short breath. "So, the good news is, the hospital has admitted fault."
Thomas' eyes widened. "You mean...?"
Dr. Kingston held up a cautionary hand. "Don't get too excited. The donor system is a separate private system, and they're unwilling to allocate a replacement body for a whole load of extremely aggravating legal reasons."
Sally thought she could see where this was going. "Is this something I can help with? I mean, I've got a body I don't want to be in, and..." she stopped, seeing the doctor's troubled expression.
"It's absolutely a thing the hospital is willing to do. The problem is, you were allocated that body for a reason. If I may—?" she gestured to Sally's case file at the end of her bed.
Dr. Kingston took the file and flicked through it, clearly looking for something very specific. She found it, and scanned the details.
"Yes. Okay. You were a better cognitive match for this body than Thomas was. And—" she waved her two hands between Sally and Thomas "—vice versa."
"How the fu—" Thomas began shouting, then caught himself, and lowered his voice. "How can that possibly be the case?"
Dr. Kingston nodded sympathetically. "I know. Despite the negative gender identity correlation, there are many other factors that have to be considered to avoid a rejection. Impulsiveness, optimism, humour, anxieties, hobbies, and so on and so forth."
She held up Sally's records, where a chart showed several dots on a scatter plot. "You need to average over 50 on the C3S—sorry, the Combined Cognitive Compatibility Scale. For Thomas's current body, you'd be..."
She took Thomas' records, and, comparing the two, counted something out on her fingers. "Forty-six. Sorry, no. Forty-eight. And Thomas for your body would be... Forty-seven. Whereas your current bodies were a fifty-six and a fifty-three."
"That's barely any difference!" Sally exclaimed.
"Yes, it's close. Scores in the fifties are risky, but are considered in life-threatening situations. Nobody's survived less than that."
"Can we improve on those numbers?" Thomas asked.
"Yes, with some effort you should be able to raise your scores up by three or four points. If you can get above fifty at all I think we can argue the case."
"But wait," Sally sighed. "My insurance... it was an OPL. I'm not covered for a second re-body."
"That doesn't matter," Dr. Kingston replied, the hint of a smile showing. "The way this works out, you'd count as a donor. No insurance needed, just a waiver. Though, my personal opinion is that you should still get a lawyer to look at your case. That clause should not have been invoked here for a procedure the NHS was going to perform anyway."
"Maybe. My shop doesn't bring in that sort of money, though."
"I don't mean to be rude, but can we get back to how to increase that... SC score?" Thomas said. "I'm up for anything."
"Yes, sorry Thomas," Kingston replied. She looked around the ward, and quickly took a chair from the far wall. She sat in-between the feet of the two beds, and addressed Thomas directly, glancing at Sally from time to time.
"Here's the absolute fastest way to get this done, if Sally agrees. You're going to have to move in with each other, and shadow each other every day. You can't pick up much consciously, but you'll need to develop an intuitive understanding of how the other person behaves. Go along to each other's jobs as much as possible. Share hobbies. That sort of thing."
"How long will it take?" Thomas asked.
"It's difficult to say," Dr. Kingston admitted. "It could be a month if you two really get on well. Or it might be a year or longer."
Thomas looked over to Sally. "I know that's a long time..."
It was indeed a long time, and sounded like a lot of inconvenience, but that thought barely had time to form in Sally's mind; no amount of inconvenience could dissuade her from the possibility of feeling even slightly more at home in her—in any—body again.
"I can do that," she replied. "I like to think I'm quite an open sort of person."
Thomas blushed a little. "Me, not so much. But that's not going to stop me trying. And hey, you said you like reading too. That's a good starting point for hobbies."
Dr. Kingston rummaged in her bag, and pulled out a couple of sheets of paper with some text printed on them. "Here's some questions you could discuss between you, if you're having trouble opening up."
Thomas took one sheet and Sally the other. Sally looked at the paper. It was a bulleted list of questions about her life, hopes, and dreams.
"Hang on," she realised. "I recognise this. My housemate at Uni and I did one for a laugh once. Isn't this one of those Fall in Love in Thirty Questions things that some dud researchers published?"
"Yes," said Dr. Kingston, raising both hands a little when she saw Sally's reaction. "And, I know. It's discredited science. I think only one of three studies actually found any effect at all. But as a bunch of getting-to-know-you questions, it's not bad. Just starter points to open up on."
Sally looked across doubtfully at Thomas, whose expression was similar.
"Well... okay," she said. "God knows I need to do something about this. As soon as we're discharged, Thomas, you can come stay at my flat. Or I could stay at yours if you prefer."
Thomas nodded. "Sounds good. You know, Sally? We'll get this sorted out."
"Deal. I'm glad I met you, Thomas."
Thomas smiled. "I'm glad I met you too."
11 Months Later
Sally blinked her eyes open. The tiled ceiling of the cognitive transplants ward were there, just like before she'd been put under anaesthetic.
She seemed to be okay. Was he? She jerked her head to the left to have a look at his bed.
It was merely the wall of the ward.
She was in Thomas' bed.
She looked down at herself, and despite her worry for her friend, couldn't help laughing in relief. Boobs. Hips. It was the only body she'd ever known Thomas to have, and now it was hers.
"Yes! Oh my god, yes!" came a familiar voice to her right. She looked over, and for a moment thought there was a mirror there. Much as she'd hated her interim body, she'd got used to seeing it staring back at her.
Thomas looked over to her with a massive grin. That male body suited him so much more than it did her.
This new body of hers was nothing like her original body. It was shorter, curvier, and—she felt her hair—so frizzy, wow! But it lacked the feeling of complete wrongness the male body had. She'd get used to it in no time.
Thomas sat up in bed, then stood up, reaching his arms into the air in a big stretch.
"Oh, this feels good," he said, rotating his chest around and wriggling his shoulders. "Oh, and this voice! Awesome."
Sally smiled. "Happy with everything, then? I tried to keep it in good shape for you."
Thomas nodded, still wriggling inside his hospital gown. "Haha. Balls are nuts."
Sally burst out laughing. "Yes they are. How long have you been sitting on that one for?"
Thomas grinned. "Longer than I care to admit."