Spaceship of Theseus

11 months ago

It’s been a problem for a while. According to Lydia, 320 billion outside years. Close to three thousand ship years. For a long time she could still tell the difference, or the similarity, even though the hardware had long been having trouble identifying me. But now she’s having difficulty.

It was a huge mess, the whole ship was damaged and Lydia mostly died before I knew anything was wrong. I happened to be standing behind the battery deck and had several tons of compressed matter between me and the burst. I saw or felt a flash, there was a service light in the corridor which died, but since I was already using my work lamp, I didn’t even bother to look around. When I finished the adjustments on the power supply and tried to switch it on, it didn’t work, so I figured I would take a break then start over. That’s when I found out that everyone was mostly dead.

Lydia had been due to go down to the ice bank in a few hours, her two month shift over, mine half done. I guess it happened at a good time, I never really liked her replacement, Tom. The brains of the rest of the crew and colonists mostly died from the thaw before I could fix it, but her brain was fine. She’s been with me for over ten thousand ship years, if it had been Tom I would have given up in the first few days. Everyone else is mostly dead, or mostly me, or just dead. I like having her around, even though we discarded the last parts of her brain centuries ago.

But now it’s getting hard for her. When it’s my shift, every 20 years or so, it’s not so bad, but when it’s supposed to be someone else’s shift, and I have to stand in - I have to use an override authorization for every little thing and it gets to be tedious. I might look the same in the mirror, more or less, but the hardware can tell the difference and it’s getting hard to convince it otherwise. If the last of Lydia hadn’t been connected directly to the hardware I would be 3000 years dead. She helped make the logical steps it takes to recognize a human who is 99% someone - everyone - else.

Lydia

It started with my corneas. The burst from the rogue anti-matter meteor which hit the magnetic ramscoop field didn’t mostly kill me like it did everyone else, but it didn’t help my eyes. Lydia’s brain was mostly hooked up to the medical AI by then and did the fine work, so she knew exactly what my new corneas looked like and could filter over the retina scans in the database, so that my retinas still looked the same to the hardware, but I had Tom’s corneas, with the distortions his identity had registered. Not really a problem. When we had to replace my larynx a few decades later, the same type of filter could blend my voice ID.

The various replacement organs were not much of a problem, although I think I got a bum thyroid at some point and for five hundred years I had more weight than the original programming allows. The heart and the lung repairs changed the biometrics a little but again not enough, by themselves, to make a difference. Sadly, things were starting to add up. About the twentieth time I changed corneas and hearts, it was taking weeks for the variations to be accepted.

Then, after a couple hundred years of replacing every worn out part with new parts from the mostly dead colonists and crew, I lost use of my left hand. Not a problem in itself, but the donor from the ruined ice banks had two good matching arms, and it was either take them both or have mismatched arms. I didn’t know the problem it would cause. Every surface was smart of course, and for decades the hardware wanted to refer to me as Mike. Because I had Mike’s right hand fingerprints. And it kept telling me that I had to go back on Ice for years at a time when there was no way for me to do it. The Ice Bank was just as mostly dead as everyone, everything, else.

So at the critical time, I couldn’t make the turnover to begin deceleration. I mean I could have, but Mike couldn’t. He didn’t have override authorization. Lydia couldn’t make my fingerprints slide enough to authorize a major mission objective. So we’ve been accelerating out of the Galaxy for thousands of years. With the relativity time distortion, we now pass by whole galaxies every day. There’s no longer any way to turn back. I’m fine with that, I have everything I need and enough replacement parts for another million ship years. At these speeds that should take me past the Heat Death of the Universe. That might be interesting.

But now there’s a problem. Lydia has been replacing my brain parts for a long time now, and usually that isn’t an issue. They are invisible, the oh-so-finicky biometrics can’t pick them up, and with the acceptance drugs that Lydia can make out of spare people juice, in a few decades they become me again, gradually. I’ve even picked up a few skills in the process, the acceptance goes both ways I guess. I can speak a few languages, play some interesting games, and have a wide and varied internal dialog on millions of subjects. It’s like all the mostly dead Corpsicles have a little bit of life through me again. Almost like company.

Also Lydia

For a while we were adding some spare parts to Lydia, but at some point she decided to go completely digital and her brain, the last, the only, part of her alive, slowly fell into disuse and death. She said it was less confusing. I don’t get that, she is her no matter what she is made of. I mean, there was only about 3 pounds of her still functioning when I got her hooked up, and we replaced more than that before she went digital. But I figured it was her choice. We had good AfterLife equipment intended for the Colony so I ran her brain through it. I mean, I didn’t give her a choice to be hooked up in the first place, but she’s been a good friend.

Anyhow, so I guess the confusing part is still a problem for her. I mean, we can convince the hardware to let things slide. It takes a while sometimes but eventually it lets me back in. I don’t mind a little inconvenience every century or so while the hardware adapts to the new me, but with every nerve and brain cell in me having been replaced a hundred times or more, Lydia is starting to have doubts about my identity. And she’s the one telling the hardware to get used to the new me. I kind of need that.

I’ve been doing what I can. I rehearse old memories for her. We knew each other back on Earth, so there’s all that time to recall. There’s the few days of sex the first time our shifts overlapped. Not the best, but memorable, at least to me. She was probably right about us just being friends, I mean look how long that’s worked out. I talk about the mission, how we were supposed to start over on a new planet, build a society based on post-scarcity ethics right from the start, a huge technological base and fresh continents to share. I reminded her of her goals, the children she wanted, the specialties she would have worked on, the honest work of building a civilization. Maybe that’s where I went wrong.

She told me that I was never so much of a company man. That I didn’t really have the dream like she did. She remembers me talking about divesting myself when I got there, being a techno-hermit on some island or mountain. She can’t understand how being alone for thousands of years might change a man, she thinks it must be the transplants. I think she is wondering if I really tried hard enough to initiate the turnover for deceleration. It’s like she thinks I planned this endless hell, this prison with a spa, this medical torture chamber of everlasting excellent health.

I would trade it all for a few days of real company, even with Tom. If I could just walk out of this ship. As huge as it is, all the corridors are exactly the same. They all lead nowhere. And Lydia, as good a friend as she is, has become predictable since she went digital. Set in her ways. Maybe that’s part of the problem. If she were still meat, still partly living, maybe we could have a long talk about the soul, about the immaterial parts of a human being that carry on after all the surgeries. Maybe we would laugh and become more than friends again. Then she would know it was me, as disappointing as that might be, at least she would remember me.

Because I’m not sure I remember me anymore. These parts of other people, the skills and languages and memories. They infiltrate, slowly, into the core that is still me, and I adapt and make them my own, but what does that really mean? The first few times that I realized my whole brain had been replaced, along with my whole body, I speculated on the Ship of Theseus problem, but I could tell it was still me. I remembered, in a direct line, from previous me to current me, everything that happened, and it definitely happened to me. Now I’m not so sure. The days all blend into one, the past is so far behind, and the memories of those thousands of other people are more multitudinous than the memories of my own life. Less present, so to speak, less real to me, but more. Much, much more.

So now Lydia is restricting my access to the medical labs. She argues that if I were George Washington’s axe, and she had replaced the handle, then replaced the head, I would no longer carry provenance as the original axe. I argue that as a living thing, each new part gradually becomes part of me, just as the ship gradually accepts my new identity, and that my continuity is not disrupted as it might be for a simpler entity. Unfortunately, she’s grown very literal and materialistic in the last centuries. She says that unless I am really me, I don’t have authority to dissect other people, nor to operate on myself. She was never more than a shift doctor, not administration, so she can’t do it herself. Everything needs my override. I can’t even get to her to try to fix herself. I was thinking that if I could get her programming to adapt to the new me, then she could get the hardware to adapt, then we could get back on track. But she’s locked me out. Recently she has tried to restrict my access to food and water and I think she tried to shut a hatch on me the other day. If I could get her to let me in the engineering center again, it would just take one command to turn her off.

So here I am at the end of time, at 99.999999% the speed of light, living through a gigayear a second, massing more than most of the Universe combined, with at least a million ship years of life possible to me. Outside time is ancient, the Universe is mostly dead, the temperature of the Cosmic Background Radiation has fallen from about 2ºK to 0.2ºK, within a few centuries ship time even protons will begin to evaporate and all external matter will disappear. Inside, the Ice Bank is out of reach, my prostate is growing again and I can’t get a new one. I’m thinking about killing my best and my only friend and she’s thinking about killing me. Or someone.

It’s becoming a problem.



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Acknowledgments
Thanks to Poul Anderson for Bussard Ramjets from “Tau Zero” and Larry Niven for Corpsicles in the “Known Space” series and to Frederik Pohl for digital Hereafter personality storage in the “Heechee” series
All imaged listed as "Open Source"

References

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Hey, @baerdric! WOW!

This is, hands down, the best Sci-Fi short I have read in years. I was mesmerized from the start. Now you've really gotten me thinking about the core nature of identity.

Awesome job! Thank You!

(Re-steemed, something I almost never do...)

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Thanks! That means a lot to me.

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I hope your story gets LOTS of well-deserved attention! :)
(Wishing for once that I were a whale...)

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LOL! Apparently it's worth about a nickle!

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Don't let the numbers throw you off... Market worth and true worth are not the same thing!

Hello, Whales? Would a whale swimming by please take note of this incredible story???

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Yeah, since I don't really plan to take any money out of this system, I don't really judge by the numbers. I'm just happy that someone read it and got the point.

This is an amazing piece. Really well done. Please keep posting!

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Thank you, what a nice response to wake up to!

Totally agree with @creatr 's comment - really one of the best scifi reads in awhile! Is there a continuation?

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Thanks @kevinwong, that really means a lot to me. There will certainly be more parallel stories, but Lydia has gone past the end of time by now.

I just now realized I used up one of my favorite female names by sending her off to the edge of the Universe. I may live to regret that.

I agree with @creatr , this was an awesome piece! Upvoted, resteemed, followed. :D

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Thank you so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

YEEE-HAAAHH!!!! :) :) :) :)

I just looked and saw your reward numbers!

Hallelujah! :) :) :)

Many thanks to whatever whales, groups, forces, and etc. - All y'all who "sat up and took notice!"

@baerdric, STEEM ON!!! :) :) :)

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This is brilliant! I read with pleasure ! I follow you !

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I'm scared to look..... Thanks for your help @creatr!

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My friend and very admirable writer, for whatever positive influence I may have had on the numbers, you are more than welcome! :) :) :) All thanks is due you for your marvelous story! ;)

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So yeah, "Ned" and "Val-A" and "Val-B" hit me up... that's a huge hit.

Remember these writers names you mention and ,of course Asimov , from my youth when I would read about 2 per day. Well written and put together, Thank You.

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That was me too. People talk about cellphones, but I remember walking out into traffic reading a SF book.....

Thanks for the feedback! Glad you enjoyed it.