The Body as a Ship by Mark Andrew Edwards

by


THE BODY AS A SHIP

Mark Andrew Edwards

Harry Hermann cradled the antique mirror in his hands, stared at his reflection and tried to decide if he was still real. By his leg, a small model of a wooden ship rested as if it had run aground there.

He hadn’t intended to change. He was a proud man, but far too vain to impulsively swap flesh for metal. It had begun simply, if painfully.

A car bomb in Istanbul had taken both his legs off. Some leftover hatred from the 21st or the 20th -or knowing the Middle East, perhaps the 15th– century had bubbled up into the modern day, pressed a command switch and taken both of Harry’s legs off at the knee.

The Turkish police were terribly apologetic, terribly efficient and just plain terrifying, swiftly apprehending the perpetrators. They’d linked the young men to old Saudi money. Terribly embarrassing. The Sheik’s representative had given him a groveling apology, a suitcase full of Swiss francs and two new legs.

They were American-designed, Chinese-manufactured and installed by a Sikh who wore a gold turban in the operating room. Harry remembered that, the gold silk standing out among the grey surgical scrubs. Then he’d passed out, sedated, awakening with new legs.

They were better than his old legs. Faster and stronger. He’d been fifty when it happened, his knees had begun to go. Now he could sprint up stairs.

And did, until his heart became arrhythmic. Ran in the family, apparently. His grandmother Wanda sent a card, and she said, her prayers.

He could have gotten a transplant, from a donor or his own cloned tissues, if he felt like waiting six months for the fastgrow to finish. But the thought of waiting that long was almost unbearable. After all, Harry was a man of his times, a 23rd century boy, to coin a phrase. He had work, travel and other things he didn’t want to miss seeing on his new legs.

So he swapped it out for an artificial heart. Inpatient work, almost. They zipped him open, popped the old one out and swapped in a new, Yamaha synthetic heart . He was out the next day with a dandy new scar to joke about at the gym.

The new heart was what really changed his life. The bomb had just been the spark, so to speak. His new heart—self-regulating, self-repairing, constantly adapting—made him feel like a younger man all over again.

He ran every day. He took up skiing, taking lessons at the artificial glacier they’d created in western Nevada. His new legs worked on the slopes marvelously. He met a girl, started dating again.

That was what drove the next replacement. His new heart had given new virility to him but his twenty-five year old girlfriend had convinced him to get a very personal upgrade. So he gotten a telescoping, piston-driven, chromed machine (with the optional vibration controls, of course). For a while they’d played cyborg and Harajuku-girl.

Then he’d gotten a new girlfriend: prettier, older, more traditional. Harry decided to cover up his new member with something a little less garish. Nuskin was just on the market, the latest thing from Amgen. And, boy, had it worked. The Nuskin was softer, durable and quite responsive. It made his old flesh seem dull by comparison. He could even control the sensitivity by remote control, once he had the proper UI hookups.

The new UI required new eyes. So Harry had bought German, the best, while recovering from his whole-body Nuskin replacement. That took three agonizingly itchy weeks, but his new girlfriend was still waiting for him. She clung to his Nuskin chest when they made love and scratched at his back when he turned on all those optional upgrades. Harry could control his pain and pleasure thresholds manually after that.

She was a fight fan and got Harry interested in the sport. He started neo-boxing as a light-unlimited amateur, marveling at how long he could last. His new heart keeping him on his new feet and his Nuskin was tough enough to take twisting punches without breaking or bruising. But he couldn’t reach the top in his new hobby. Not while he had hands made of flesh and bone. That ate at him, not being the best. Besides, he told himself, he’d be more productive at work if he didn’t have to take pain meds to deal with the carpal tunnel he was developing.

So, Harry had replaced his hands and arms, getting a package deal that didn’t put too big a dent in the Swiss francs busily gaining interest in his bank. His new hands were Mitsubishi, top of the line, while the arms were Russian and 50% stronger than anything else on the market. Both fully supported Nuskin, of course. Harry made sure of that before going under the electro-knife.

Harry began winning his bouts. His girlfriend drifted off and there were tears or what passed for them from his Zeiss eyes. But there were younger, wild girls who also liked fighters. Harry didn’t lack for companionship.

But as strong as his legs and his arms were, there was only so much his back and spine could handle. After his fifth semi-pro match, Harry retired from sports, going back to work for AppleSoft. The desk job was easier on his back but Harry soon found he missed the excitement.

He was a young man still, not even sixty. His new hands flew over the keyboard tirelessly but he had a harder and harder time keeping up with the newer, brain-modded co-workers. He didn’t make the cut anymore. When his contract ended, his manager shook his head sadly and told him he’d need to find another job.

Harry didn’t, not really. He had money but the rejection stung his pride. Somehow that had hurt more than the increasing pain in his back. He went to a doctor about the latter. They did tests; his heart was still fine, still going strong, but his muscles were showing strain and there was spinal deterioration. Another genetic condition, no help for it. Only his grandmother, Wanda, had escaped the curse. Maybe she could donate some genetic material, help him find a cure.

He visited her at her farm. She was so small, so delicate and so plainly happy to see Harry again. She told him, she hardly recognized him anymore and her face was sad when she said that. He’d come for a bone marrow sample, a painless extraction nowadays, but he’d stayed for days. Talking, remembering. There was a little model ship at her farm, one she’d helped him build as a child one rainy day. No tools, just their hands and some glue. An old ship, built like in the days of Odysseus. She’d saved that ship, kept it as a reminder, she said. Harry assumed she meant it was a reminder of him.

He helped fix things up for her. She wasn’t upgraded at all. Alive through good genes, well water, and fresh jam, she said. Harry was sorry to leave her, her old fashioned way of living and her old memories of the world that was. But the hospital beckoned, a new life called.

Spinal replacement was discussed or new myomer-laced muscle threading (UnderArmor had some exciting new sport-models). But the recovery time for spinal work meant he’d lose years, even if he kept his mind busy in the internet. Harry knew himself, or thought he did. He wanted to live in the real world, enjoy adventures that weren’t virtual, date women who were actually women.

In the end, he took a deep breath – one of his last – and decided to go with a full-torso replacement.

That meant a major lifestyle change but, mercifully, everything he’d purchased so far was backwards-compatible.

He had a power plant now and a mass of nanomachine factories in place of his old organs. He’d been scared, for the first time since Istanbul. He needn’t have been. This was new technology but they seemed to have gotten the bugs out of his new GE torso. Covered in Nuskin, he had the body of a Greek god. And what better place for him to recuperate than one of the luxury resorts in Cyprus?

He didn’t need food but GE had thought of that, too. Harry had been a bit of a gourmand, not to say food snob. Now he could eat everything and not worry about calories. Food went from his stomach into a very streamlined waste disposal system and then out through an artificial o-ring between polished cheeks. He could even override the normal mode to dilate to any diameter he wanted. That was Nuskin-covered as well, so Harry could turn up or turn off the sensitivity down there as he saw fit. No more indigestion, no more problems eating the food or drinking the water anywhere in the world. Of course, there were other uses of that feature and, well, when in Greece…

Greece changed everything for Harry because it was there that he met Helen. Met, wooed, and brought her back home. She was lovely with long, wavy black hair and the softest breasts, the sharpest mind. Helen loved food even more than Harry did and with her advice, he’d gotten a full oral upgrade. Nuskin had a new taste upgrade and it combined perfectly with a Brazilian tongue and palate design. Food tasted better than it ever had before and, of course, he made sure there was a pulsate feature available his new lingua for Helen’s benefit.

Personally, Harry was as happy as he ever had been before. He was learning a new tongue with his new tongue and enjoying Greek cooking three nights a week at Helen’s apartment in Redmond. It was his professional life that was falling apart.

He was bright, always had been, but he was getting cut out of jobs, losing them to those young kids from MIT or from Djibouti with their artificial brains. They were astoundingly productive, Harry had to admit that. They seemed nice enough, just a little… fast. A little distracted, or so it seemed to Harry. But he couldn’t argue with their results.

Finally, he downloaded brochures from the Gooleplex on their new cloud-enabled cognitive upgrades. An artificial brain. He read everything he could on them, even taking the youngsters to lunch to gauge them better.

Still he wavered. He stayed up late with Helen, talking to her. She found the idea horrifying, though of course she was barely upgraded at all. A traditional girl, really. Harry liked that… liked her… loved her, to tell the truth.

He had money. He had her. He had a body that could do anything he could ask of it. But he didn’t have his pride. Pride. That was what drove him past his fear. It was what drove him from Helen.

She went back to Athens and married an Orthodox minister. Harry went back under the electro-knife, truly frightened for the second time since Istanbul. This time the surgeon wore a baseball cap, not a turban. And this time when he woke up, he had a new mind.

They promised that this new brain would be better than the old. It was, as advertised. Harry spent the first few weeks exploring his mind and memories. They were all there, all uploaded to the internet. Memories he didn’t even know he had were there in files dated and time stamped. The mind copy had been remarkably complete.

Harry could look at old memories, save the good ones to be easily accessible. Some bad ones, from his childhood, he could delete with a press of a button or archive them to never come up randomly. He could freeze an image, save, and store it to enjoy it perfectly, timelessly. Harry took snapshots of flowers in the arboretum and spend virtual hours looking at them, smelling them, appreciating them like he never had before.

They were virtual hours because time began to pass very strangely to Harry. He could do so much at once. He was plugged into the internet like he never had been before, like some hard-core gamer from the last century. But there were no plugs, no wire, no chromed jacks for Ethernet ports. He was online and in his body, all the time.

Time passed swiftly online, but now Harry could keep up. He could work on one task, play a game, carry on a conversation, all using different processes in his mind. He could choose which thread to follow with his attention and watch the clock in the lower right corner of his vision to see what time it was in the world of flesh.

His new brain gave him even more control over his new body. For his seventieth birthday, he did a decathlon at the Enhanced Olympic Games and medaled. He could drill down his consciousness to the here and now, manually remove distractions, de-prioritize random thoughts. He could make love with his whole mind and whole body. He met a similarly-upgraded swimmer, Makiko, at the Games and discovered that together the two of them could max their pleasure thresholds and keep going until even their Nuskin upgrades began to abrade. They exchanged email addresses and met a few times a year, blocking out a week at a time to work through the kama sutra.

Work came to him. Harry’s experience with his new brain and body made him even more productive than the youngsters. He was promoted, given a signing bonus almost as big as the wad the Saudi Sheik had given him, and far less painfully. He was singled out at review time for his work and for his showing at the Games. He even got some ‘net exposure. He was internet famous for weeks afterwards, which was better than the old kind of famous, of course.

It was so much, so fast, so wonderful that it scared Harry, just a little. His new brain had a ‘classic mode.’. Tap that icon and Harry’s expanded consciousness compressed back down. It cut off the internet, cut off all the noise. The youngsters called it ‘sleep mode.’. Harry agreed; he could only sleep when it was on.

He found he didn’t physically need sleep. The weeks with Makiko had proven that quite literally, but without sleep Harry’s mind sometimes would go in strange directions. His subconscious subroutines would dig up old books he’d read in college. They brought Helen back to him. His grandmother. Their conversations. Questions would bubble up to the top of his data flow unless he locked the thread down. But even so, the babble didn’t go away entirely. Sleep was the only time that Harry was free from his thoughts.

Then something from the past intruded onto the life of his mind, bumping up against him. A lawsoft program notified him that his grandmother Wanda had finally passed. And that triggered off a cascade of memories, stranding him for long moments, adrift. He remembered her, the smell of backing cookies, the smell of her farmhouse, the smell of her old, lived-in skin.

The lawsoft program nudged him back to the present. He was the last surviving member of his family. He was her heir. The farmhouse was maintained by a trust his grandmother had already set up, the farm itself worked by ConAgra, of course. But he needed to go the farmhouse in person, as a condition of the will. Wanda had left something special for him, she’d said, in the house.

Harry went to the farm, met the attorney AI projection there, got the keycode to the front door. Then he powered down his mind, living in ‘classic mode’ for a while, pretended he was six again. He wandered through the rooms and was pleasantly surprised by how… normal he felt. His mind felt like his mind, his memories bubbled up at long-forgotten sights and sounds as he explored the rooms. The floorboards creaked under his new body’s weight.

Where was the gift? Where was this something special?

He found it, next to the old mirror upstairs. The little wooden ship with a note tied with red string to it. Spidery, uneven words written on paper with an ink pen. This is you, Harry, the note said. He stared at the paper for a long time, then moved his eyes over the ship. He picked it up, touched it, felt the grain of the wood, the little knobs of dried glue. He remembered it, remembered making it, piece by piece. This wood was different. Each little plank was different. Every piece, replaced. He put the ship down and picked up the mirror.

It was old, older than his grandmother, for certain. A pitted, cloudy hand mirror in a handsome hardwood frame. Harry resisted the impulse to hit the full-power icon hovering amber in the lower right corner of his vision. He didn’t want to know what kind of wood it was or the details about how silvered mirrors worked. He watched himself, reflected in it, sitting in front of the attic window, smelling the dust but not breathing it in. Not breathing at all. Still in the way that only a machine can be still.

He saw artificial eyes; Harry had left them silver back in his boxing days, thinking they might be more intimating to opponents, more mysterious to women. Perhaps they had been. His features looked like his features. Younger, certainly, and without blemish (a Nuskin warranty saw to that) but his face. His hair was a polyester fiberoptic, softer and adjustable in length or color by himself or, much wiser, by a cosmetician with better taste and flair.

He stared at his face and suddenly an old story from his grandmother came to him. Old, older than himself, his country, than science itself. He remembered Wanda telling him of Athens. How it had been founded by Theses. They’d argued, good-naturedly—they were all good, respectful, fun arguments with Wanda—about whether or not there ever had been a Theses. Harry, full of thoughts of minotaurs and amazons, had said he was a myth. Grandma Wanda insisted he was not a myth but a legend. Something real that had grown.

Her evidence was his ship. The Athenians had kept his ship and sailed in it to a nearby island, to the temple of Apollo. They had done this up to the time of recorded history. And as each plank and piece of wood had rotten, the Athenians had lovingly and exactingly replaced it. This had gone on for centuries and by the time of Plutarch, surely not a single piece of original wood had remained. The question he’d asked her, dredged up from some horrible college philosophy course, was whether or not it still was the real ship of Theses?

Harry sat there, staring at himself, thinking of that ship, of the little ship his grandmother had left him, thinking of all the upgrades and replacements he’d made. Thinking of his titanium skull, his porcelain teeth, his Nuskin-coated, mechanical body and asked himself over and over: Am I still Harry Hermann? Am I still real?

He suddenly realized he was panting, that his body was trembling, soaked with sweat. Some subconscious subroutines running wild, clearly. He started locking those threads down. Just enough, so that he was under control again. And then he made himself take a breath he didn’t need, stood and left the mirror, and the ship behind.

About the Author

Mark Andrew Edwards read too much fantasy and science fiction growing up, so his current writing addiction is understandable if not excusable. He enjoys writing humorous or heroic stories though he is not immune to the pull of a good Noir now and again. He also runs a writers group in the Seattle area: the Cloud City Wordslingers. His most recent short fiction can also be found in the anthology Bless Your Mechanical Heart. His website is a bit dusty but can be found at www.markandrewedwards.com.

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