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The Ship of Theseus


It started with her ears. She'd been born partially deaf and gotten cochlear implants at age seven, but she knew these devices failed to capture the full spectrum of sound available to a functional eardrum. She always felt that she was missing out on secrets only available to those who could naturally hear, and this exacerbated her insecurities and fears of abandonment. With her degrees in neuroscience and engineering, and her specializations in prosthetics and robotics, she was more than capable of producing a pair of mechanical ears that would replicate the abilities of true human ones. It took only a handful of weeks to complete the undertaking. When she heard - really, truly heard - for the first time, she felt a mixture of joy and anger that the world of sound had been robbed from her for so long. If she added a few modifications to her new ears - volume control, sound storage, a bluetooth speaker - it was only because there was always room for improvement. The voices of her husband and son made the sleepless nights and countless frustrations worth the agony of invention.

     Next, it was her legs. It may seem like an extreme jump - replacing the ears was much easier and less time-consuming than amputating and reattaching the lower limbs - but the progression made perfect sense in her mind. Like her ears, her legs had always failed her. She'd sprained both her ankles multiple times throughout her twenty-six years of life from sheer clumsiness. She'd broken her left leg at age six, her right one at age eight. A terrible skiing accident had left her with a torn ACL, and no surgery could bring back full mobility without pain and stiffness. Standing for more than ten minutes was probably the punishment she was destined for if she went to hell, so of course, walking was out of the question. When she went on afternoon strolls with her husband and son for "quality time," she always found herself sitting on a park bench by herself, unable to continue, trapped by her inathleticism, fearful that one day she would be left behind and forgotten. She was an expert on prosthetics; she had been designing them for years. She knew what she was doing and why she was doing it - for her family - so naturally, she was going to replace the legs that had failed her. It just made sense.

The development and eventual execution of her new and improved legs was a long and arduous undertaking, but within the span of six months, she was hand-in-hand with her beaming husband and skipping seven-year-old as they took their third - third - lap around the park. Her legs felt amazing! No pang of soreness, no aches or sudden twinges of pain, no crackling knee joints, or risk of a rolled ankle. These mechanical prosthetics had none of those pesky human flaws her old legs - now preserved in formaldehyde on a large table in the corner of her home laboratory - had carried, and she marveled at how far she had come, both physically and professionally. Her research career was in full bloom, and she dreamed of sharing her work on the improvement of humanity through technology. She wasn't selfish; her inventions could save millions of lives and improve future generations. As she powered through laps four, five, six, and seven, even after her husband and son sat on a bench in exhaustion, her mind was alive with endless new possibilities.

     Next, it was her eyes. Since age three, she'd worn glasses, and she was certain she'd be considered legally blind without them. If she hadn't been born into modern-day society and into a family with access to quality health care, survival of the fittest would have weeded her out long ago to prevent her terrible genetics from spreading to the next generation. Her son appeared to have escaped the curse of bad eyesight, but her next child might not be so lucky. Developing the perfect pair of eyes would not just benefit her; it would lead to the betterment of humanity as a whole. So she replaced her eyes, setting the human originals in a jar on a shelf, and made her irises green (her favorite color) instead of muddy brown. She missed the shadow of sadness in her husband's eyes at this decision, certain that once she was smart, and beautiful, he would never leave her.

     Now that she had gotten this far, now that she knew what she was capable of, it made no sense to stop. Next, it was her arms, weak as they were, unable to lift anything more than ten pounds. They joined the legs and the eyes in her ever-growing collection of human body parts. She swung her son around in glee after that, marveling at how weightless he felt thanks to the power of her technology and her genius. Meticulously, she replaced every external human part of her with machine until her skin fused flawlessly together into an armor of synthetic fiber, smooth, unflawed, yet supple despite its inorganic nature, warmed by the thrum of blood that didn't quite reach her cheeks. She modified the receptors in her new exterior to monitor certain sensations but did away with pain and discomfort because those were distractions and provided no benefit to humanity (and anyway, she'd had enough of them). Tresses of lustrous and durable kanekalon replaced her thin and limp locks, and when her husband ran his hands through her improved hair, he told her through a sad smile that she was beautiful.

Beautiful. That had been a part of what she'd been hoping to achieve. When she'd embarked on her mission, she'd sought to improve herself for the benefit of her family, to ensure that they would always be by her side because they needed her. But her project had evolved into so much more than that. Through the years she'd dedicated to creating her perfect self, she'd discovered invaluable knowledge about the human body - and its flaws. Her eyes, her legs, her arms, and every part she'd replaced had been perfectly preserved; she'd carefully laid every piece out on a table in the corner of her lab for easier access and inspection. She could see how weak and delicate the human body was. As a machine, it was extremely limited. There were so many things that could go wrong. It was a miracle the body worked at all that the human race had survived so long in such a delicate vessel. Integrating technology to ensure human survival was much more reasonable than submitting to natural selection.

     Every waking hour was consumed with new ideas, new plans for improving herself and thus improving humanity. She cursed sleep and the need to eat as she fleshed out her research. She forgot her son's elementary school graduation and her husband's goodbye party as he changed jobs. Instead, she locked herself away in fantasy, imagining the way her groundbreaking ideas would be received by the community. In the rush of new inventions, she heard the voices of scientists whispering her name with a quiet reverence as she replaced Charles Darwin as the mother of evolution.

     With every external feature accounted for, it was only a matter of time before she turned to her insides. Of course, her brain, though genius, had its drawbacks, its faults. Without enough sleep and adequate nutrition, it made errors. Errors were unacceptable but bound to happen because her brain was human and, in turn, inherently flawed. In fact, she realized how imperfect its thinking was because it had taken her so long to realize it needed upgrading. A perfect brain would've realized that it was the first thing that needed improvement! Cursing her human intelligence, she rapidly developed the perfect brain, one that didn't have the faults that held her back from greatness. Whatever she sacrificed with the upgrading of her brain was worth the complex calculations she could now solve in a matter of milliseconds and the vast ocean of knowledge now at her fingertips. Having eliminated the pesky inconvenience of sleep, she then turned to the other obstacle: nourishment. Next, it was her stomach, followed by each internal organ - her pancreas, her kidneys, her liver, all of them except her heart which she left beating in a cage of metal instead of bone.

With each replacement, she meticulously placed the original, flawed organ in its proper place on her table. Then, like a puzzle, the pieces came together until she realized that she had nearly an entire person in front of her, a frightening glimpse into what she might look like when she was dead. But the corpse sitting on the table wasn't really her, she reminded herself because she was still alive, still standing and examining with a critical eye all the flaws she saw in the body before her. Still, there was room to grow, to improve, to evolve.

     It was impossible to say how much time had passed since she had begun her life's work. Days? Weeks? No, much longer than that. Months? They had slipped away from her outside of her awareness. Years, then. How many, she didn't know, but it didn't matter as long as she accomplished everything, as long as she finished perfecting herself and eventually humanity. Without the need to eat, sleep, shower, or practice any form of self-care other than routine maintenance, she rarely left her lab. In fact, many had begun expressing their condolences to her husband, under the impression that his wife had passed away.

     With her heart still beating in her chest, she set about her last, most arduous creation. With its completion, she would finish her life's work and mark the beginning of a new chapter for humanity. Only a few typed paragraphs reflecting on her research would stand in the way of her and the future.

     As her son finished middle school, her husband filed for divorce. He entered her laboratory for the first time in countless months. Once upon a time, he had visited his wife as she worked, content to watch her thrive in her element. But she was gone now. This would be his final visit.

     "Where is she?" he asked the figure that stood where his wife once had. "Where is my wife?"

     She looked at him, unable to understand the emotion in his eyes, fluent as she was in the language of the machine. "I'm right here. I am your wife."

"No, you aren't."

     The firmness with which he denied this fact surprised her, binary digits of code trying to translate a feeling she'd long ago done away with because it had fallen into the category of discomfort.

     "Yes, I am. I am your wife," she insisted, irritated by his irrationality.

     He shook his head and then caught sight of the figure on the table, in the corner of her laboratory, the fossil preserved in amber, a relic of another time. His reaction was instant, an anguished wail escaping his open jaw, his face draining of blood as he stared in horror at the crudely constructed corpse. In his shock, he did not realize that the divorce papers had fluttered from his hands and that his wife had picked them up for investigation. Anger was another emotion she had no coding for, but the way the wires and circuits of her body whirred and vibrated was reminiscent of that feeling as she read the documents he'd brought. The lingering fear of abandonment had never left her, and no amount of machinery could replace its infectious grasp. How could he do this to her? After all, she had done for him, for their species, he would simply abandon her?

     "You've killed her." His whisper broke across the crashing waves of rage that had welled within her. "You've killed my wife."

     "You're leaving me." She wanted to shriek, to scream, but her vocal chords hummed in harmony, immune to the influence of hysteria. "You're leaving me. You're leaving me."

     He was shaking his head, tears streaming down his face, unable to form a coherent sentence as she continued to utter the same three words like a mantra. Then he was backing away - he really was going to abandon her!

     Her ears were filled with the echo of her husband's agonized cry, her legs frozen to their spot beneath her, her eyes unable to look away from his retreating figure, her arms falling limply to her sides. Her brain, which had all the knowledge in human possession, held no answers. The fear of abandonment grew to new proportions. She could not let him leave! She would not let him leave.

In a swift motion, she picked up her final project, which had been sitting innocuously in its nearly-complete state on her work table. A heart, silver in color and patiently waiting to replace its imperfect original counterpart. With the strength of mechanical arms, she threw it toward him. When it struck the base of his skull, he collapsed to the ground. She knew he was dead.

     But that wouldn't be an issue. She would make him a new body, a better body, one immune to the perils of pestilence, the weather of time, and the triviality of emotion. He would never, ever leave her, and they would live happily together, the parents of a new generation of perfect humans. He would be the Adam to her Eve.

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