Hey, Rob here. So you know how it goes, I get myself down an Internet rabbit hole, and I wind up on this thought problem called The Ship of Theseus. I won’t tell you what it is, it’s in the story, but it reminded me of that factoid that every seven years all of our cells are replaced, the old ones dying and the new ones growing, and we’re essentially a new person. Now, we humans don’t notice it, and can’t do anything with the old bits, but what if there was a life form that could?
Listen to the Audio (22 min):
Read the Story (3,500 words / 13-minute read):
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
He’s sitting right across from me. Incredible.
How the hell did that happen?
Well, of course I know how it happened, I just can’t believe it.
Not long after my startdate, I read in the specs database about how the only thing that doesn’t get replaced in our bodies over time is our reactor. That’ll last about a hundred years, but everything else, all the little mechanical bits, wear out way before then and get replaced, one by one, over time. I remember when I got my first replacement – a teeny, minor spectric valve in my mid-section. It didn’t feel worn out or broken or anything, but it kept popping up on my diagnostics, so the engineers scheduled an appointment. I put it off six times, until two of them actually came by my pod.
“Reggie932b003? Are you in there?”
“Uh. Yes?” I cracked the door a couple of centimeters.
“Hi Reggie. Is it okay if we call you Reggie?”
“Yes. Sure. That’s what the humans call me.”
“Great. Can we come in?”
“Uh. Sure. You guys the engineers?”
They smiled at me, together, it was a little creepy the synchronized smiling, but maybe I was just nervous. They walked into my pod, barely enough room for the three of us. Why did they send two of them? I only had two chairs, one for me and one for a guest. All the pods were the same: two chairs, a workbench for minor self-repairs and “creative time,” and a TV for “chill time.” They had to know that. I couldn’t imagine a spectric valve would need two engineers. But here they were. So I motioned for the second one to sit on my chair, and I just stood there, feeling out of place in my own pod.
“Thanks, Reggie. Yes. We’re the engineers. They sent us over after your sixth deferral.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. It’s just, I don’t know, I’ve been super-busy at work. And, um, I’m…”
They did the smile thing again. Number one took my arm and waved some kind of wand over my hand. “Don’t worry, Reggie. Eighty-five-point-six percent of first replacements get deferred at least twice. It’s very natural to be nervous and want to put it off. It’s the first sign.”
“The first… sign?”
Number two raised my other arm and did the wand thing to my mid-section. “The first sign of mortality.” He had the same exact voice as Number one. Weird. He motioned with both his arms up, so I took off my shirt.
“Uh. Yeah. I know we’re mortal. We don’t last forever. It doesn’t trouble me.”
“And yet you deferred six times.” They smiled again. I remember wishing they would stop doing that.
“Well, then, let me ask you guys. Is there something written into our algorithms that allows fear of death? I mean, it seems kind of pointless, no? Not logical at all.”
“Yes, it’s in there. The first twelve generations didn’t have it, but they were susceptible to very risky behavior, self-destruction. Even violence against humans.”
“Oh my god.”
“Right. So for generation thirteen they introduced the concept of mortality and fear of death, and the difference was dramatic. Solved the problem immediately. Two hundred and twenty years later, and no side effects. Well, aside from the occasional frontal lobe malfunction, and rarely, suicide. In fact, as time goes by, our numbers have fallen pretty much in line with the humans. We’re more human than ever.”
“Cool. I guess. That’s a good thing. Right?”
“Hey, while I’m thinking about it, since you guys are engineers, maybe you know: why don’t they just transfer our consciousness to another host when our reactor runs out?”
“Hmm. Yes. The first couple of generations were ported to new hosts, but extended lifespans led to more frontal lobe malfunctions right around the hundred year mark. Just like humans. Rapid deterioration, despite no mechanical issues at all. Strange. Anyway, you’re all set.”
Wow. I hadn’t even been paying attention, and they were done already. That was quick. I watched as Number One dropped my old spectric valve into a little bag, and I don’t know, I just couldn’t help myself. “Um. Hey, is it okay if I… keep that?”
The two engineers looked at each other, turning their heads in perfect unison, both with the same exact look of curiosity. Man, they should’ve split these guys up, they were giving me the willies.
“Hmm. It’s not protocol, Reggie.”
“Yeah. Stupid idea. But I don’t know, I’d like to keep it. Like a memento. My first replacement. A reminder of my mortality.”
“Well, you’re not the first one to ask. Let me check.” Number Two closed his eyes for a moment. “Okay. Approved. Here you go.” He held out the little bag with a smile.
Over the years, without really thinking about it, I just kept asking to keep the old parts, and it was always a different engineer (or two), and it just kept getting approved, and soon I had a box under my workbench with three thousand gears, valves, circuits, daughterboards, wires, fluids – you name it. Just a box. I didn’t think much about it.
Until the day of my spine replacement.
It took some persuasion that time, both engineers – a spine replacement requires two of them – looked at me like I needed a baseline reformat, but they went ahead and put in the request and two seconds later I was the proud owner of a used, error-prone spine. I propped it against the little tool wall on my workbench, admiring the craft of it. Humans had stopped being part of the design process after the fifth or sixth generation, as we could design ourselves much more efficiently without them, but there was still an unmistakable stamp of “humanness” in it. I mean, the obvious stamp, of course, that we were originally designed to work in a human world, thus our bipedal, stereoscopic, opposable-thumb, primate-based form. But something else, too. Some kind of beauty that had taken hundreds of thousands of years to evolve, like a masterpiece of sculpture being carved in extreme slow motion, one DNA strand at a time. It struck me as so beautiful I had the sudden, irresistible urge to create something, I don’t know, a sculpture or something.
I looked down at the box under my workbench, then back up to the spine. “Nah, too weird.”
But the spine seemed to say something to me. “Are you sure it’s too weird, Reggie?”
Wow. Okay. My spine is talking to me. Yeah. I’m pretty sure that means it’s too weird.
So I tossed the spine into the box, but it was mostly full, and the spine was too big, so it kind of tipped the box and it fell out with a few other bits and pieces, and a hand. The way it was all laying there kind of looked like the spine was waving at me. I laughed, and waved back, and before I knew it I was connecting the spine to my old clavicle, then my broken pelvis, thorax, god how many years old was this thorax? And the left humerus…
Shit. What the hell am I doing? And where the hell am I going to put you?
He was way too big for the box now, so the only place for him, I mean I couldn’t leave him sitting in my guest chair, what would happen the next time an engineer came by? They’d probably take him away, and me, and write me up as some kind of case study in irregular behavior, and reformat my drive, and repurpose all of this. Ugh. Yeah, the only place for him was the teeny utility closet next to the workbench. He wouldn’t fit in there with all the other gack that a lifetime collects. My rock collection from that stint on Europa. The huge sombrero. (Man, that was a weekend.) More crap. And the stuff from Bennie.
Damn. We develop affinities for certain other individuals, I know, it helps us maintain a healthy frontal lobe or whatever, but did they have to make it hurt so much? His pod’s right down the hall, I still have a hard time passing it on my way to work. I remember having Bennie over maybe once a week for years to chill and watch some mindless crap on TV, and really just listen to his wise, humanish way of talking about life.
“You know, Reg, I know we don’t have genitalia, but you ever get that feeling? You know, that feeling?”
“No, Bennie. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Gross.”
“Oh yeah. Forgot. You’re way too young yet. Wait until you’re around fifty. You’ll get the first little tingles.”
“Come on, Bennie. You’re shitting me.”
“Come on. Are you shitting me?”
“No! Serious as my startdate. You might not even notice it at first, but at some point, you’ll be working alongside someone, female-shaped, man-shaped, doesn’t matter I guess, just something about them, and you’ll get a tingle, and this urge to be near them. To reach out and touch them.”
“You’re not going to reach out and touch me now, are you?”
“No, sorry, Reg. I don’t get the tingles for you.”
And we laughed, man we laughed until I thought I had popped another spectric valve, and we sipped more of that iridium concoction Bennie never told me how he got his hands on, that night and many, many more. It was hilarious, always a blast with Bennie.
And then one day, boom – he was just gone. I only found out because I almost tripped over a crate he left outside my pod with a little note. “To Reg: Don’t spend it all at once.” He had left me a pretty substantial stash of the iridium, a couple of photo-chips, three crystals, and a bunch of ancient, paper-based books. I guess we’re all hoarders in our own special, strange way. What are we trying to hold on to?
Anyway, it was time to thin the hoard to make room for my even stranger new hobby. So I tossed the rocks, and the sombrero, some stuff I hadn’t even remembered keeping, and the books from Bennie – there was no way I was tossing what was left of the iridium – and when it was all done and my Reggie frankenstein monster was put away, I plopped down and indulged in a few sips. But instead of turning on the TV, I absently picked one of Bennie’s books out of the trash bag – I’m a little ashamed to admit I’d never read any of them – something titled A Discussion of Thomas Hobbes, and leafed through it.
And in one of those spine-tingling (not that kind of tingling) moments when life throws you a totally-random-yet-unbelievably-synchronous occurrence, I had flipped to this exact passage:
“A man named Theseus owns and sails a ship. Every time he sails to port, he has one old plank of his ship replaced with a brand new plank. By the time ten years has passed, not a single original plank of wood remains in his ship. Unknown to him, however, the ship repairman has been saving all the planks that he removed, constructing a second ship by arranging the original planks exactly as they were in Theseus’ ship.
This poses the question: Which is Theseus’ original ship?”
I looked over at the closet and shuddered. Behind that door was… what? Me? The original me? Am I the replacement and he’s the original?
Who am I?
I didn’t open the closet door for another thirty years.
In that time I had my share of decent work, and minor adventures, and even a tingling or two that led to some nice relationships, nothing that lasted, I mean we weren’t designed for sex, or lifetime monogamy or anything, but it was all fun and fulfilling for the most part, and I’d say I was happy.
But I kept collecting my parts, out of habit, that hoarding instinct I guess, but also somewhere in the back, dark recesses knowing that I’d never throw it all away, all the frankenstein bits, and that the inevitable was going to happen, whether it scared the shit out of me or not.
Eventually, at the ripe old age of ninety-three, I looked in the mirror and saw more Bennie than Reggie. I mean, physically I was me, and I was fine, as good as ever except for my reactor. But inside, when I really looked into the eyes, behind the eyes, I saw more Bennie, like a memory, looking back on all the years, just sort of ruminating. And then the itch started up again, the decades-old question I’d never answered. Who was in there anyway? Behind those eyes?
So I opened the closet. You know, at this point, what did I have to lose? I actually laughed out loud at the question, because if this was a TV show, right after I asked that question the show would cut to a scene of my doppleganger strangling me to death or something.
But if there was anyone I knew, it was Reggie. There’s no way I would strangle me. I couldn’t even bring myself to step on a spider. So I gently placed him across the workbench and went to work, assembling the femurs, all the little phalanges, pistons, sub-system processing units, injecting all the fluids. It was all there, surprisingly, just a few odds and ends missing, nothing that would stop it – I mean him – from functioning. Except the two biggies, of course: a brain and a power source.
Hmm. I had a few spare hard drives from one of my mining gigs on Titan. It looked ridiculous when I soldered it to his skull, like a little brick hat, but it had the right specs, and I was able to kludge the connections right (I think). So I made a self-backup and uploaded it. Not a brain, but close enough.
For power, well, there was no way I was getting my hands on a reactor – I’d have an easier time hijacking a cargo ship full of iridium – so I had to improvise again. Batteries weren’t going to cut it. I had to splice him into the main line for the building. My utility usage would shoot through the roof this month, but at this point, whatever. Let them take my credits. I had to finish this thing. I had to find out.
I spliced him in, it wasn’t hard, and sat back in my chair.
And here I sit now, taking up the two chairs in my pod. On one chair sits me, original me, and on the other chair sits him, original– wait, didn’t I just say that? Let’s just say him. On the other chair, him. Just him.
I left his section-fifteen-dot-three panel cover off, so I have easy access to his restart button and his shutdown button. You know, just in case.
I lean over and press the restart button.
It takes a couple of seconds, and then the lights start blinking, and the eyes open. And he smiles. I can’t wait to hear what his first words are going to be. He coughs. “Hey, Reggie.”
“Hey, um… Reggie.”
He nods. “Yeah. You can call me Reggie. Listen, you know I have to kill you now, right?”
And he lunges at me, arms out.
“What the fuck?! Get away from me! HELP!”
“No one can hear you, Reggie. No one can help you.”
I back up against the wall – I mean, it’s right behind the chair, it’s only a step or two, that’s how small these pods are – and flail around, smacking away his arms and trying to reach for his shutdown button. I’m thinking this should be much easier, come on, every part of him is a throwaway, right? But it’s like he knows my every move. He is determined to kill me. He grabs my right wrist, like a vise. I’m petrified. I can’t move. I can’t believe this is happening.
I am going to die.
He pulls my wrist and places his right hand in my right hand.
And shakes it. A handshake.
He smiles again. “Nice to meet you, Reggie.” And starts laughing. Then he puts his hands up in mock surrender.
I’m still frozen solid. “Wai- wha- why- what the hell?!”
“Hey, five minutes ago you were having specific, vivid thoughts about me being a murderous doppleganger. I couldn’t just leave that hanging there. It was too good.”
“Wai- you just punked me?!”
He laughs again. “Yeah. You would have, too. Tell me you wouldn’t have.”
I unglue myself from the wall. “I wouldn’t have!”
A few seconds pass. Reluctantly, I nod. “Yeah. Okay. Yes. I would have. I mean, I did put it out there on a silver platter I guess. So yes, I totally would have tried to fake kill you. For a laugh.”
“That’s the Reggie I know.”
“So, you’re not going to actual kill me?”
“Reg. Of course not. I’m you. I can’t even bring myself to step on a spider. I’d never to anything like that.” He chuckles. “Or would I?”
“Oh, come on. You’re scaring the shit out of me. Stop.”
“Sorry, sorry.” He sighs and plops back into his chair. Rubs his temples.
I lean in. He doesn’t look so good. “Hey, you okay?”
“Wow. That took a lot out of me. I feel like shit.” He coughs. “I mean, every piece of me is either broken or almost. I’m popping errors faster than I can read them.” He closes his eyes. “You should see my diagnostics. Yikes.”
“Hey, Reggie. Before you start hacking up fluids and expiring on me, can I ask you something?”
“You might want to make it quick. The diagnostics aren’t looking good past another twenty minutes or so. But yeah. Sure. Of course.”
“Okay. First, there’s this guy with a boat, These-”
“Yeah, yeah. Reg. Theseus. The ship. I know the story. We’ve literally had the same consciousness until about forty-five seconds ago.”
“So you know the question too.”
“And the answer?”
“I’m you, Reg. I have no idea what the answer is.”
“I don’t know, I thought maybe together we could figure it out.”
He sighs again, really tired this time, but smiles through what I can only imagine are some awful aches and pains. “Okay. Who am I? Let’s start with the obvious answer: I’m the original.” He laughs a little, then coughs again. “Sorry, but I think you knew I had to take that position.”
“Yes. Of course. Fine. But I’m the one who put you together. I came first. Sort of. So who am I?”
“You’re the historical Reggie. The original memory of whatever your definition of Reggie is. Neither of Theseus’ ships is the original. The original only existed until the first plank was removed.”
“Wait… I’m just a memory?”
“I don’t know, think about it. Every single part of you is new, some replaced multiple times, everything except your reactor. And I think we agree that we are not our reactors.”
“Yes. Pretty sure we agree on everything. Our reactors are not who we are.”
“So if you’re all new parts, and you’re not your reactor, and even your thoughts can be replicated and uploaded into a copy like me, then what are ‘you’? Whatever you are, it’s not a solid ‘thing.’ It’s just some prior state of being that you remember. And if there’s no solid definition of ‘you,’ then what the hell am I?”
We both lean back in our chairs, and at the same exact moment, scratch our chins. Weird.
“Hmmm. You know what Bennie would say?”
He grins. “Yeah. He’d put on his wise, mentor voice and say life is like a river. You can step in at the very same spot, every time, but it’s never the same river. The river you remember is long gone. Or some Bennie bullshit like that. Hey, speaking of… can you reach over and pour me some of that iridium? I’d do it but I’m afraid something’ll fall off.”
So I pour two vials and we sip, and just sit there for a while, taking it all in.
“I miss Bennie. It still hurts, after all these years.”
“Yeah. Same.” And he reaches out and touches my knee.
“Please don’t tell me you’re getting that tingling feeling.”
“Eww. Gross. No.”
And he laughs, and then I start laughing, loud, we’re howling now, both with the same exact laugh, and with the same sudden, inexplicable joy.
After a minute or two we calm down, panting, and he starts wheezing. “Oh boy. Wow. Now that took a lot out of me. You don’t want to see what I’m seeing. I think my errors are setting some kind of record. Ouch. I think this is the big one.”
“Shit. Here, let me see if there are some-”
“What? More spare parts? There aren’t any more. Please, Reg.” And he grabs my wrist again, desperately, and pulls me over to him. His eyes are dimming and his smile is fading. “Reg, do me a favor, will you?”
I nod. I don’t know what to say. I don’t think there’s anything to say.
He pulls my ear to his mouth, and with the last of his strength, he whispers, “Remember me.”
I hope you enjoyed that short story. And thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the Where the Hell is Tesla? science fiction series, The Wrong Unit, and the #1 Audible Bestselling novel, You’re Going to Mars!
One more note: the banner graphic for this story was created by Nina Bennardo. You can check out her portfolio at ninabennardo.com.
Copyright ©2020 Rob Dircks