Ship of Theseus by David Decorte

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The door of the cold locker opened with a sharp creak, sending light spilling onto the chrome floor. A silver cart glided in through the door, propelled smoothly by the slim, three-fingered hands of an orb-shaped drone. The machine’s ten small eye stocks darted from one corner of the crowded freezer to the next, careful not to scrape against any of the polished metal doors.
The locker was still dim, but even though thermal vision did little in this environment the drone didn't bother clicking on the light. After countless trips to the cold room with trays of McReedy it had memorized the right locker.
The drone passed by the drawers, each labeled with a different name, mostly patients of necessity.
Reaching the back wall, it stopped at a full-size fridge labeled "McReedy, John." The drone’s texture-coated finger tapped a button on the cart's side and the soft field retracted, the trays of flesh and organs suspended in crimson pools on the cart's surface instantly coming into sharp focus.
It grabbed the first tray and slid it into one of the rectangular openings in the wall, the human eye inside the tray sloshing around a three-inch deep pool of blood and artificial nutrients. The next one, a relatively healthy-looking human liver, went in on the shelf below.
The drone did the same with each of the trays on the cart, six in all, before closing the fridge door and hitting the cryolock.
"02Martin," a woman called down the hall, leaning her head out of Room 3167. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail and draped over her shoulder, covering the two small inputs on her neck and spilling onto the white coat which hung loosely over her slim frame.
"Yes, Doctor?" the orderly replied, keeping its body stationary but pivoting its arms to give the illusion that it had turned to face her.
"You finished with Mr. McReedy?"
"Yes Doctor. Just got the new piece in the cooler."
"Alright, well Dr. Soren has another batch down the hall from another patient. Get over there asap."
"Yes, Doctor."
Dr. Rosen ducked back into the exam room and closed the door. She approached the table, her unconscious patient laid out with a tangle of cables and patches running from a monitor in the corner into the array of inputs at the base of his neck. The four small inputs, along with a tiny digital display were the only signs that he was not all natural, pure meat.
Everything about the figure on the table reflected symmetry – his face, his neatly cropped black hair, the muscles of his arms and chest – nothing suggested any sort of imperfection, as if some master sculptor had carved the man from marble.
The doctor turned one of the dials on the controller and McReedy's eyes instantly slid open, his pupils contracting and dilating.
"Mr. McReedy? Are we awake?" she asked.
"I think so."
"Good." She paused momentarily and gazed down at her tablet. "Well, according to the preliminary scans, all of your systems are online with no complications, so we look like we're in good shape."
Rosen pulled a penlight from her pocket, clicked the end and shone it in McReedy's right eye.
"You know, Doc, I didn't get that eye switched out."
"I know Mr. McReedy, but it's protocol. Gotta make sure both pupils are in sync. You know how that goes."
"Yeah, of course," he replied dismissively.
"So how are you feeling?" she asked.
"Pretty good. I guess I can't complain."
"That's good. Well, as I mentioned, the scans suggest you are doing splendidly, so as long as you seem to agree then there's not much to check out. I mean, at this point it's more a matter of compatibility than physiological rejection, so as long as all of the parts add up it's all good."
"So I can get out of here today then?"
"Not quite. We'll still keep you overnight for observation, but as long as nothing turns up you'll be headed home tomorrow."
"I guess that will work."
Dr. Rosen chuckled lightly, flipping through the pages on her tablet and then clearing her throat. "Though while you're here," she said, looking up over the frame of her glasses at McReedy, "there is one issue my supervisors wanted me to discuss." McReedy craned his neck slightly to focus on the doctor.
"As you know," Rosen continued, "It is standard practice to store non-vital tissues for a period of time to ensure that there are no issues, like your body rejecting the augmentations, while vital tissues are stored indefinitely. The number of organs which you've augmented or replaced is starting to take up a considerable amount of storage in our lockers, so the                              management has asked me to discuss with you an increase in your storage fee-"
"There's no need for that," McReedy interrupted, snickering slightly.
"What do you mean?"
"You can just toss all of that stuff or do whatever it is you do with it. I mean, I sure as hell don't need it anymore."
"You don't want us to continue storing your tissues?"
"Not really. Why? Is there some reason that I should?"
"Well, for augmentations which have cleared the necessary monitoring period, I guess not. It's just that, well…" she said, pausing slightly, "a lot of people tend to have reservations about their tissue simply being discarded."
"Eh, do what you want – toss it, donate it, transplant it – I don't care. Like I said, I've got no use for it."
"Well, if that's what you want, I'll inform the management," Rosen said as she scribbled a note on the tablet screen, the stylus jolting erratically with the quick movements of her hand. "We will have some releases for you to sign, but if you're alright with it, then we don't have any reason to hang onto the stuff."

"What the hell do you mean?!" the man shouted, slamming his fist on the desk.
"Like I said, we don't mean to discount the many years of service which you have put in here at the clinic--"
"Service? I practically built this place! You shits wouldn't even be in business if it weren't for the techniques I developed!"
"Yes, we acknowledge your brilliance as a doctor," the man sitting behind the desk said, lacing his fingers together as a more stern expression crossed his face, "but these statements you've been making in news lately-"
"Against the elective procedure? And I stand by those statements. We can't be in the business of turning people into machines for fun, Kenneth."
"I understand your ethical qualms, Richard, believe me I do. However, we have customers willing to pay for those procedures."
"Of course! That's what it's all about, isn't it? Who gives a shit about helping people! Who gives a shit about anything as long as you're getting paid!"
"Look Richard, we are simply not going to see eye-to-eye on this matter. I'll give you until the end of the day to clear out
your lab of personal material, but after that, you're through."
Kenneth untied his fingers and then re-laced them, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, of a slightly heavier build, but still youthful and with a full head of neat, brown hair. Richard, on the other hand, was older and slimmer, his face lined with wrinkles, his hair almost entirely gray. Richard's face was contorted, barely able to contain his fury.
"I didn't get into this business to make fancy toys for yuppie bastards on the Upper East Side, Kenneth. Everything I've done was meant to help people who need cybernetics, not just for the socialites to get off on the thought of living forever by becoming a robot."
"Regardless of your personal feelings Richard," Kenneth said, taking a more stern, defensive tone, "this is the course that the industry is moving. This is the course the directors want to pursue, the shareholders want to pursue." Kenneth pushed himself up from his chair and turning to face the window. From his office, Kenneth enjoyed a view of Finance Square, the people below scurrying and disordered as they moved from one building to the next. The monorail zipped by, and on clear days like this when the residue index in the air was low he could see for twenty blocks uptown. He smirked slightly, then took on a more serious look as he turned to meet the rage burning in Richard's eyes. "I am sorry, Richard," he continued, "but you're simply not going to fit in around here anymore. We can both clearly see the direction in which TransUnited is moving, and there is simply no place for you in that vision."
"You mean away from the direction of ethics and responsibility?"
"Call it what you will, but the story is still the same."
Richard's wild eyes bulged out of his skull. He slammed his clenched fist against the wall, turned and stormed out of the office, heading down the hall to the elevator.
"Richard!" Kenneth called down the hall behind him, "Just don't do anything stupid!" he shouted, pointing to a black mini-drone floating in the corner of the room. It had the same eye pattern as a helper drone, but with an extra, slightly wider stock to the left of the center eye, meant for discharging weaponized energy of a moderate strength. “You keep putting out those statements for the tabloid sites and you’ll fucking wish that a cease and desist paper is all the board lays on you!”
Richard didn’t turn around to face him, but simply flashed a stiff middle finger in his direction as the elevator doors slid closed.
"The fucking bastards!" Richard fumed to himself as he threw the lab door open. "Forty years of work! I built this place from the ground up, and this is the goddamned thanks I get!" He glanced at the poster hanging next to the door – a promotional picture in which John McReedy had agreed to appear, advertising the company's new "Full Body Realization" course. Richard grabbed an empty Vita Drink bottle off the desk and threw it against the wall next to the poster.
"Now you've got all these nutcases coming in and wanting upgrades just 'cause it's fun! 'Cause they're bored and have too much money and time on their hands!"
Richard slapped one of the picture frames off the desktop, sending it crashing to the floor. In the shattered glass was a picture of himself and Kenneth, both twenty years younger. A small plaque glued onto the plastic imitation-woodgrain of the frame read, “The World’s Most Advanced Cyber Center: In Commemoration of TransUnited Labs’ 20th Anniversary.”
After taking several more minutes to brood silently at his desk, Richard let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes vigorously, dragging his fingers down to the bridge of his nose and massaging his face as he looked around at the accumulated clutter of the lab. He hoisted himself out of the chair, resigning to the task of finding some empty boxes.
He returned several minutes later from the mail room, a stack of flattened cardboard under each arm. He assembled one, folding the corners beneath one another and set it on the floor in front of the antique mahogany bookshelf where he kept some of his personal library.
Classic fiction, politics, pulp novels – all went haphazardly into the boxes. He was on his third box when suddenly he stopped.
Richard stared intently at the well-worn book in his hands. He’d purchased the thick stack of now browned, dog-eared pages back in college, and had not even thumbed in at least two decades. It was in an Intro to Bioethics class – he couldn’t recall the face of the professor who assigned it, but he remembered the book.
The words “Ship of Theseus” were embossed in gold, chipped lettering on the blue felt cover. The memory swirled up in his mind like sediment rising from the floor of a thick bog – the questions of prosthetics and ethics and all of that which Richard had learned and mulled and retained and digested and set aside.
He spent several minutes, eyes locked on the dull, plain cover of the volume, then looked over at the poster of John hanging on the wall, the edges stained orange from the Vita Drink. He reached hurriedly for a stylus marker and hit the projector, expanding his tablet display to cover the full wall and began scribbling with intent fury.
It was six nights later, just after one o'clock in the morning when Richard's rental van pulled into the parking lot. He’d requested a classic model that still had a manual driver function, and shut off the satellite locator.
With his knowledge of the building's network, it had been easy enough to hack the security drones remotely, allowing him a few minutes to sneak into the office and print himself a new key card before leaving the building that afternoon. Now he hacked the security drones once again and made his way in the back door to the service elevator, and down toward the bottom level to the cold storage room.
Richard grabbed the largest cart he could find, then slipped on the parka hanging on the hook next to the door – not usually a necessity, but he expected to be inside for several minutes. Once in the cooler, he hit the light switch and made his way to the back wall. Here they were – dozens of different drawers, each with a different piece – heart, lungs, entire limbs – all pieces of McReedy. One by one he loaded them onto the cart, careful not to spill any of the precious fluid that kept the tissues alive. Once the cart was full, he made his way out to the van.
He had lined the sides of the van's interior with makeshift drawers, just like the ones inside the cooler. Ever so carefully, he grabbed each tray off of the cart, sliding it gently into place and locking them down, one by one.
After three trips, his work was done. Richard replaced the cart and shut the cooler, then signed-out the parts and filled a report using the tablet on the wall.
He made up the service name of an orderly drone and keyed-in that all of McReedy's old parts had been disposed of properly and officially. In an office as huge and hopelessly bureaucratic as this, he figured, no one would ever even notice that no such drone served in this building.
"Who's in there?" a smooth, synthesized voice called from the hall near the cold storage room door. The figure flicked the ceiling lights on and locked eyes with Richard. "Doctor? It that you?" the drone asked.
"Oh…uh…hello, 02Martin," Richard replied nervously. "Working late tonight?"
"What are you doing here?"
"Oh, just grabbing a little bit of tissue I had requisitioned for research. They were just going to be disposed of anyway, right?"
"I suppose so," Martin replied, "But that wasn’t listed in my orders for tonight."
"Yes, I've got the papers upstairs, afraid I must have left them in the locker."
"There’s no need to bother with all of that, Doctor,” 02Martin replied cheerfully. “I can simply call up to the security system and verify your clearance for tonight."
02Martin floated toward the tablet on the wall and prepared to jack-in to the system. Richard, thinking fast, grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall next to the door and brought it down with a dull thud across the back of 02Martin's chassis.
"Shit, shit…" Richard mumbled to himself. A stream of coolant oozed out of a deep gash on the back of 02Martin's shell. The small android convulsed and sparked, releasing the screeching, clicking sounds of a failing hard drive before falling silent.
Richard grabbed his tablet and plugged it into the drone’s sync port. He projected and entered visual mode, scanning through the hundreds of file grouping which swirled around him. Most of the files were already corrupted by the blow, meaning that 02Martin was effectively dead, but not wanting to take any chances, he took care to corrupt the data of the last fifteen minutes. He loaded a virus into 02Martin’s stabilizing software, then wiped the edge of his coat in the silvery coolant pooling on the metallic floor and spread it against the desk to his right, hoping to make it seem that the drone had lost its balance and crashed to the table.
It had been three weeks since John McReedy had his last meat upgrade. The eye was working smoothly, along with some supplementary tissue and a new liver and kidney, both of which were guaranteed to be at least 40% more efficient at filtering toxins out of the body.
John could feel the difference – he had more energy, more vitality. It was like he was walking on a cloud. The re-sensitized nerves just below his skin felt every caress of the wind, the soft, synthetic cotton suit grazing his skin.
Before leaving the day of the last upgrade, he had already scheduled an appointment to have the other eye converted.
An eye upgrade, involving much finer neural connectivity than many other tissues, necessitated another overnight stay at the clinic for observation and driver installation. John always hated those overnight stays, but they were ultimately a small price for the privilege to see the world entirely anew. With synchronized cybernetic eyes, he could perceive details in the world of which his organic peers could never even dream – colors more vivid, textures finer than any of them could ever even hope to understand - and now they were all his, surrounding him, making up his world. To John, it was as if a blind man had suddenly learned to see. And it was beautiful.
John caught the subway back from the clinic the morning after achieving his short-term goal of fully-cybernetic vision, then walked the four blocks from the station to his apartment. Standing at the front door, he pressed his thumb to the small black box above the handle, unlocking the deadbolt. Even though the skin was synthetic, the skilled replicators took great care to ensure that his thumbprint precisely matched the contours of the original during one of his earlier procedures.
Once inside he dropped his overnight bag at the door, immediately training his attention on the previously imperceptible contours of the foyer wall, his eyes scanning the
indents left by paint rollers on the drywall like stars in the sky.
After admiring the fine details of his living room which he had never before even thought to investigate, John made his way to the kitchen, hoping to survey every last corner of the house for the first time with true, enhanced vision. His dream was coming true. Only a few more upgrades and he would be fully cybernetic. He could live forever as a superman. He smirked with satisfaction, fantasizing about the prospect, when something caught his attention.
Resting near the edge of the mahogany-tiled counter sat a lone, ceramic coffee mug. John was always diligent about collecting any accumulated dishes and putting them in the washer before heading to bed, and he didn't recall leaving a mug to sit overnight with the house unoccupied.
The little, black mug was still warm to the touch, the last drops of coffee at the bottom not yet dried. John stood for a moment, trying to understand – he couldn't have left this mug behind. But here it sat, challenging him.
"Rosie?" John called out.
"Yes, John?" the disembodied, synthetic voice of the central computer replied, emanating from every corner of the room.
"Was anyone here besides me?" he asked. The computer took a
moment, scanning its memory banks for anyone who might have entered the house that did not look like John.
"No one has entered the house within the last twenty-four hours besides you, John," the computer replied softly.
"Huh," he said, for lack of anything else.
"Do you have any further inquiries, John?"
"No, thanks Rosie, that will be all." John set the mug back down on the counter. Strange as it might have seemed to him, he had little time for a mystery. He had already taken the first half of the day off from work in order to head home and change before making his way to the office, and he didn't need any further delays.
He showered quickly, slipped into one of his finely-tailored suits and headed back out. He always enjoyed the brief stroll through the neighborhood up to the subway. Even out here in the suburbs, more than twenty miles from the city center, the excitement of the town was inescapable. Off in the distance, he could see the city skyline, monolithic buildings stretching thousands of feet into the air, transport tubes and monorail tracks connecting them all in a tangled web in the sky as if woven by some massive, neurotic spider. He loved the thick, gray skies which gradually lightened as you moved away from the city center, reaching a pale azure blue by the time you reached the affluent, green-dotted, comfortably mid-rise apartment sector that John called home.
45 minutes later he emerged from the shadow of the Fulton Street station, making his way to the tower on Williams below
the 13^2nd Street Plaza near Memory Park. Auto-pedicabs and pedestrians moved overhead on the Overground, while cars and trucks sat gridlocked on the street below. The mood was slightly more tense than usual; the morning forecast predicted another smogstorm tonight, and everyone wanted to finish their business and make it home before the worst of it rolled in.
As John approached his building the door-drone took his briefcase, sliding it into the transporter to have it sent directly to his office. "Thank you, Scotty," John said.
"Not a problem at all, Mr. McReedy," Scotty replied. "Already finished your business?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, well I thought you had just gone to a meeting."
"Oh no, I was at the clinic yesterday getting an upgrade, took the first half of the day off today to head home and clean up before coming in."
"Really? But what about earlier?"
"Well, I already saw you twice today. You came in this morning wearing a different suit, then I saw you heading out not even thirty minutes ago. You said you had some business to attend to at an office a few blocks away."
John looked puzzled, "No, I promise you Scotty, I haven't been in yet today."
Scotty looked similarly puzzled, his eye stocks shifting slightly, studying John’s face, but he was less than interested in pursuing the matter. "Ah, well I must be mistaken sir," he replied. "Perhaps I was confusing this morning with another day."
"Well, mistakes happen, as they say," John said, chuckling dismissively. He looked casually over his shoulder, glancing out the window at the street when a figure caught his eye – the tall, lean frame, the closely cropped black hair, the familiar navy suit - John blinked, but the illusion did not disappear. He watched as his own doppelganger headed down the stairs to the subway.
"Everything all right, Mr. McReedy?" Scotty asked.
"Hold on just a minute, Scotty," John said, walking back out the door, his eyes transfixed on the stairs down which he had just watched himself disappear. He ran across the street and down the steps to the turnstile. The bioscanner beeped as he walked through, his green eyes darting from one corner of the platform to the other, but he could not see his doppelganger anywhere.
John walked back up the stairs and through the door back into the building. "Was there a problem, Mr. McReedy?"
"Yes…I mean no, everything's fine, Scotty. I think I may need to make a phone call when I get up to my office though."
Upstairs, John sat at his desk, resting his chin on his hand and staring vacantly. "What was that about?" he thought. He had never experienced anything like this before. Reaching for his tablet, he plugged it into the array at the base of his neck and synced up.
"Rosie?" he thought, the sound of his voice echoing silently inside his head.
"Yes, John?" the disembodied voice answered back from the recesses of his mind.
"I need you to run a diagnostic on the new eye. I'm starting to suspect that there might be a problem."
"Understood. Give me one second, John." After a few moments of soft whirring sounds the voice returned. "John, I've finished the check. I couldn't find any malfunctions with the new hardware."
"Hmm," he said, weighing the possibilities. "In that case Rosie, call Dr. Rosen at TransUnited."
"Sure John, just a moment." After a few more seconds' pause, the phone began to ring, then clicked as the call connected.
"So, you say you've been having hallucinations?" Dr. Rosen asked. She was seated on a stool in the exam room. John sat in front of her on the table.
"Something like that. I mean, earlier this afternoon, out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw myself walking around outside my office – like, it was another person, but he looked exactly like me. Besides that, there were just a few things around the house that were out of place – things that shouldn't have been where they were. Small things, like a coffee cup or something, and it looked like someone had just left my office when I got upstairs this afternoon. I just got the feeling that someone had been there." John dropped his head for a second to think, then raised it again to make eye contact with the Doctor. "Then," he continued, "I checked my closet when I got home to pack my bag, and the suit I thought I had seen myself wearing earlier was missing."
"Hmm," Rosen paused, staring at her tablet and chewing on the end of her stylus. "Well, I can't say off the top of my
head, but considering that these visions started shortly after getting an optical upgrade, there's an obvious suspect cause."
"That would explain things in my house and my office not being where I expect them to be, too?"
"Not necessarily, but there could be some error in the syncing of the new upgrade with your optical memory. Let's get you plugged in and see if we can run another diagnostic." Rosen grabbed the set of cables running from the back of the monitor and plugged them into John's neck. His eyes glazed over as the sheen of streaming data flickered across his pupils.
Rosen tapped her stylus against the table as she mulled over the data. "I'm not seeing any kind of malfunction showing up so far." She unplugged the cables from John's neck, his eyes returning to normal.
"So what do you think?"
"I'm not quite sure. I'm going to consult with one of the other technicians, but I think I might like to keep you here overnight for observation while I look over the data more thoroughly. I might also want to have a specialist come in and run a psych patch on you to make sure all of your drivers are receiving signals correctly from the new eye."
"I figured that might happen,” John replied. “Already took the liberty of packing a bag."
Doctor Rosen smiled, the just barely-noticeable lines beneath her eyes wrinkling a touch. Her red lips parted slightly, showing a row of straight, white teeth. "Well, at least you've gotten the procedure down by now."
Rosen hit a button on the digital display built into the surface of her desk. A few seconds later, an orderly drone floated in the door.
"Yes, Doctor?" the orderly asked.
"Please direct Mr. McReedy here to an overnight room. I've got to talk with Dr. Voor for a moment," she requested.
"Yes ma'am," the orderly replied, grabbing John's bag between its metallic pincers and beckoning him to follow down the hall.
"We'll meet you upstairs shortly to conduct some more tests," Rosen said as John was led out of the room toward the elevator.
"This will be your room tonight," the orderly said, ushering John into a mostly empty but at least comfortably furnished room. There was a projection display against the wall, as well as a chair, a soft-enough bed and a dresser made of real wood, a surprising luxury for just a guest room at the clinic. It reminded him of the studio apartment he had lived in during his junior year of college, but much quieter.
"You've got a couple of people staying down the hall, but all of the neighboring rooms are vacant at the moment, so you should have plenty of peace and quiet."
"Thank you," John answered.
"No problem. Just call if you need anything, I will be on duty all night."
After unpacking, John turned on the display to catch up on the news from earlier that afternoon. He also read at the same time while playing a game of chess with one of his business associates online, and also reviewed his schedule for the next week. After the game came to an end, he allowed himself to fall into sleep mode, though just for a half sleep, rather than the recommended duration.
John woke up on a cold linoleum floor. As he came to and the shapes around him stiffened and grew less fuzzy, he started to make out a row of doors down a long hallway, each door bookended by a window obscured by shuttered blinds.
He felt a throbbing in his head creeping on, and had a slight urge to vomit. The tablet hanging on the wall next to one of the doors showed the time as 22:47.
John staggered to his feet, clutching a doorframe as he nearly toppled over. His clothes were gone, and he was dressed in a white, blue-specked hospital gown. He became aware that he was in the TransUnited clinic. “How the hell did I get here?” he muttered under his breath. “Rosie,” John thought, trying to connect to his home computer, but no response came. “Rosie, are you there?” he tried again, but he still received no answer.
Just then, John caught a shadow creep around the corner at the end of the hall, and a tall, slim figure slid through the first doorway. “Hey!” John tried to yell, though his tongue failed to move with the level of smoothness he expected. He moved down the hall, lurching and dragging his hand against the white tiled walls for support.
He stopped in front of the door he’d seen the figure enter, and stooped down to find a sleek, gray metal pocket-gun lying on the floor just in front of the doorway.
“Hello,” he stammered apprehensively. The room was dark, save for the box of light cast against the floor through the doorway. John crept cautiously into the room, gripping the pocket-gun close to his waist.
He moved over to the bed and looked down into the sleeping patient’s face – it took a moment to register, but even in the dim light, he could make out the familiar features of his own sleeping face lying in the bed below.
At that moment, John’s proximity alert registered in his head. His eyes snapped open to find his own dimly-lit face staring down at him. His twin’s eyes reflected a sense of confusion and disbelief, but in his hand he held a pocket-gun pointed directly between John’s eyes.
The John looming over the bed staggered back as the John lying in bed let out a quick yelp. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I am John McReedy. Who the fuck are you?"
"I'm John McReedy,” the doppelganger replied.
“That’s impossible. I’m John McReedy. I was Born August 16, 2036 in New York City. I am an executive at the Central Financial Deposit Center.”
“No, I was Born August 16, 2036 in New York City. I am an executive at the Central Financial Deposit Center.”
“I don’t understand what the fuck is going on…”
"Listen, you little shit, is this your idea of a joke?”
“I should be asking you that. I wake up to find you standing over me with a gun, wearing my face?!
"I just woke up in the hallway. Now, tell me goddammit, who set this up?" he asked, waving his gun hand wildly through the air. "None of my cybernetics have responded for hours. I want to know who you are, and what the fuck is happening. I want answers, goddammit!"
"You want answers?!" the John in bed asked.
"Yes, I want answers. Who are you, and what did you do to me?"
The John lying in bed hesitated for a moment, then burst out into laughter.
"What's so damn funny?"
"This can't be real. I must be hallucinating again."
The John standing above him snarled as he leaped onto the bed. His left forearm landed across the other John's throat, while his right trained the barrel of the gun on his double's left temple.
The other John grabbed the gun, aiming the barrel up at the ceiling as his doppelganger fired off a shot. The John in bed easily overpowered the other, forcing him off the sheets and sending the gun sliding across the floor. Quickly jerking the cables out of his neck, John leapt off the bed and on top of his opponent.
Just then, a lean shadow appeared in the box of light on the floor. Richard stepped casually through the doorframe, surveying the scene. "Well, what's all this?" he asked calmly as he stooped to pick up the gun and slid into his coat pocket. "I thought I heard a gun go off in here."
"This fucker tried to attack me!" John said, still holding his doppelganger against the ground.
"Ah, so I see you two have met," Richard responded. "Though please, no more of this."
"What the fuck is going on?!" the first John shouted. "Who are you?"
"My name is Doctor Richard Volan. I think I can clear up all of this confusion."
"Well? Start talking!" John shouted, wrapping his arm into a chokehold around the doppelganger's neck, then lifting him into a sitting position.
"That man over there in your arms is John McReedy."
"No, I am John McReedy!"
"Yes, you're both John McReedy. At least in the legal sense, I suppose."
"What the fuck are you talking about?!"
"It's interesting, John," Richard replied, crossing his arms and staring up at the ceiling with an amused smirk on his face. "I mean sure, we can all see the advantage of little things like cybernetic eyes, neural enhancers, maybe a little hearing upgrade, but you – you've had the full gamut. Just about anything you could chop out and replace, you got rid of. I mean, at this point there's hardly anything left of you that's original – maybe just your brain and a little bit of tissue here than there to keep everything together.
"Yeah, so?"
"Well dammit John," Richard said, almost breaking the false sense of ease and placidity he was struggling to project in order to mask his excitement and anger. He took a moment to collect himself, closing his eyes as he let out a sigh, then continued.
"The surgical procedures which I developed were meant to help people – people who actually need help. And they have helped people. The kind of people who don't necessarily want a cybernetic heart, but need one in order to live."
"What's that got to do with him?" John asked, jostling his captive twin.
"Patience, John" Richard replied, "I'm getting to you two." Richard started at the ground and paced slowly for a second, then looked back at John.
"The thing is, John, you've become the face of this place in the past few years. You're our star attraction – our walking, talking advertisement. I mean, plenty of people knew you already as a big-shot downtown, but now you're known for this," Richard said, chuckling casually and throwing out his arms as if unveiling the building around them.
"Get to the fucking point!" John shouted.
"The point, John," Richard shouted back, no longer able to conceal his anger, "is that your 'passion' for turning your body into clockwork borders on fetish territory."
"Fuck you! How is it any of your business how I choose to spend my money?"
"Well John, you actually gave me quite a brilliant idea, believe it or not," Richard replied, slipping his hands into his pockets, "and I just wanted to share it with you." Richard produced the gun and pointed it in the Johns' direction. "Back that way," he said gesturing with the gun toward the back wall.
John released his twin, and the man doubled over, gripping at his throat as he struggled to breathe normally again.
"You," Richard said, pointing to the still-gasping John as the figure rose to his feet. "You don't understand why your cybernetics aren't working, do you?"
"No," he replied in between heaving breaths.
"Are you wondering why it's taking so long to regain your breath, too?" Richard asked. John looked puzzled for a moment; he hadn't even thought about the fact that he needed to breathe so badly. His cybernetic body only needed a fraction of the air needed by an all-meat body. The regular breathing was mostly just for show – his body expelled about ninety percent of the oxygen it took in.
"Yes, just now dawning on you, huh? Something doesn't seem right, does it? Now, remember where you were right before waking up here?"
"I remember being thirsty. I was at a vending machine, trying to buy something. I scanned my hand but it didn't work."
"It couldn't read the chip in your hand because you don't have a chip. You can't sync anything with the ports on your neck because they are just for show. They're not real."
"What do you mean they're not real?"
"You're real, John. Aside from a few pins and pieces here and there, you are all-natural flesh, blood and bone."
"That's impossible!"
"I'm telling the truth here. That hand you have there doesn't even have an ID chip in it. It's as much flesh as it was the day you were born."
"I had this hand upgraded almost two years ago," John said, forcing the hand in Richard's direction as if asking him to examine it.
"No, he did," Richard said, pointing at the John behind him against the wall. "You, on the other hand, are the hand he gave up."
Neither John could speak or even comprehend the strange words dancing from the doctor's mouth.
"You cut yourself apart, piece by piece, shedding yourself until there was hardly anything left," Richard explained. "All I did was put you back together. Putting spliced flesh back together – really nothing remarkable as long as the flesh is well-preserved, and as I'm sure you know, we always take very good care of our patients here."
"Are you crazy? That's fucking impossible!"
"No, it's easy! You have a cybernetic brain with an organic body, while he's an organic brain surrounded by a cybernetic body."
"My brain can't be cybernetic!" John shouted.
"Of course it is! Sure, a cybernetic brain with all of your memories lifted from the backup banks of the central computer in your house, but your own natural flesh, reconstituted and reunited! So, there you are! John McReedy!" Richard exclaimed, taking a great deal of joy in the Johns' disbelief.
"I gave you a gift you didn't even know you wanted – I gave you your self back! Saved you losing your self! It seems to you like you you've lived your entire life just like you are now, but I only released you from the lab yesterday, after transferring all of you memories to you. I hoped I could lead you here, but what can I say? I got impatient," Richard said with a dismissive shrug. He looked past John, to the John standing behind him against the wall. "The only thing left to do is tie up the loose end," Richard explained, handing John the gun. "Now, take out the imposter, and reclaim your life!"
John turned and froze for a moment, staring into his twin's eyes. One was the same eye he'd known for several weeks, but the other was strange to him. They looked just like the two in his head now, but something was different - something he'd never noticed. The one that he'd replaced just a few weeks before Richard brought him into this world stuttered slightly as it expanded and contracted.
He lifted the gun and pulled the plunger. Richard grunted, stooping and bringing his hand together to cover the hole his gut. He rested on his knees, shaking slightly as he stared up into John's eyes. Gasping, he fell over onto his side, heaving and releasing uneven rasps of air for a moment before finally falling silent.
John then turned to face his doppelganger, raised the gun and delivered a shot to same spot in which he'd hit Richard. The cybernetic John imitated Richard's movements, falling in the same manner in which his twin's creator had just come to rest.
John approached him cautiously, checking for any signs of life. With incredible speed, the enhanced John swept out his twin's legs, bringing him to the ground and sending the gun flying to the other side of the room. "I'm not gonna fucking die!" he screamed. "If only one of us can live, it's gonna be me!"
The doppelganger scrambled across the floor, reaching for the gun that had come to rest in the corner. John grabbed his leg and threw a punch, his fist connecting with his twin's right cheek.
The blow left him dazed, but John refused to quit. He stumbled to his feet, grabbing a crystal flower vase off of the dresser and smashing it over his twin's head.
The bionic John leaped on top of his doppelganger and the two struggled, rolling across the floor like snakes wrapped in a duel. They staggered to their feet, each hoping to end the fight quick.
The John standing next to the bed looked behind his twin out the window overlooking the parking lot below. He charged his clone, but John dodged at the last second, grabbing the other John's arm and flinging him as hard as he could.
The glass shattered as John crashed through, followed by a scream and an abrupt thud.
John grabbed the gun from the corner of the room and charged through the door, to the end of the corridor and down the five flights of stairs to the ground. In the parking lot, John found his twin lying on the pavement, struggling not to slip into unconsciousness.
John raised the gun and put a bullet through his right eye. 
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