The Mercy of Theseus
by Rachael K. Jones
Greta and Jamal have three arms, two legs, and one working kidney between the two of them. The kidney belongs to Greta. Its twin went to her little sister three years back, and now she has a laparoscopic keyhole scar over her belly button to remember it by. She can feel it pull tight when she rolls her creeper beneath the chassis of the next project in the shop. Thanks to the war, Jamal has lost the arm, the legs, and the other two kidneys.
All his parts have since been replaced.
When Greta picked up Jamal in Washington, D.C. three days back, the first thing she did was insult him.
“You look like shit,” she said. His left hand–the good one–flew up to his right cheek where the surgical scars stood out like red cords. His bionics were top notch–the Army had to put you together again before they could legally discharge you–but you could still see where the silicone skin ended and his real face began.
Greta snorted. “Not your face, you moron. Your sweatshirt. You look like a psycho killer.”
Jamal wore an oversize gray Army sweatshirt with the hoodie cinched tight beneath his chin. He dropped his hand and sidestepped when she tried to hug him. “Where did you park? Let’s get out of here.”
She ignored the slight and led the way to the parking lot. She felt secretly gratified when Jamal’s jaw dropped at the sight of the ancient Mercedes. “Jesus fucking Christ, Greta! You found Mercy!”
Greta sidled up behind him and eased the duffel bag from his hand–the bionic one. It looked like a real hand up close. Just not like Jamal’s hand. “Get in. We’re going on a road trip.” She slung the duffel bag on a stack of Heinleins in the back and took the driver’s seat.
“I don’t remember it smelling like French fries in here,” said Jamal.
Mercy is a 1975 Mercedes-Benz 300D sedan. Burgundy with sham-sheep seat covers and polished pine dashboard. The bumper is solid steel. Inside, it smells like French fries. Greta converted Mercy to run on fast food grease when gas got expensive and most cars went electric. You can’t buy diesel-fueled cars in most states nowadays. You can’t buy diesel, for that matter, but there’s plenty of grease to be had, if you know where to ask, and it’s usually free.
Mercy rides low because of all the road trip gear. Greta packed the trunk with spare parts: brake pads and camshaft bearings and an extra fan belt and fuses and two spare tires and three glowplugs and more, all salvaged over the years and stored against the day Jamal came home. She hopes it will be enough to finish the trip.
The back seat is stocked with beef jerky and oranges and bottled coffee. Greta’s black backpack is wedged behind the driver’s seat, and Jamal’s Army-issue green duffel bag takes up the middle. There are a few books, mostly fiction, but also a philosophy volume (Greta loves paradoxes), an atlas of common garden plants, and a biology textbook.
The glove compartment holds an old composition notebook filled with penciled lists, barely legible anymore, which Greta has memorized. And there is the roadmap, also ancient, the one with their route traced in green Sharpie.
One of Greta’s favorite paradoxes: the Ship of Theseus. In ancient Greece, the people of Athens preserved the ship Theseus sailed home by replacing the boards, oars, and pegs as the weather ate them through, so future generations could appreciate the artifact.
Philosophers are of two minds on the vessel’s nature. Some believe it is the ship of Theseus. Some believe it is a different ship altogether.
This paradox reminds Greta of Mercy.
When they were 16, Greta and Jamal worked together at Fuel-Em-Up nights and weekends, but neither could afford a car on minimum wage.
“You got fifty bucks?” she asked one Friday night. She was working the register while Jamal ate a pickle in a bag. “Because if you do, we should totally buy this.” She held up a cell phone picture of the fateful Mercedes.
“Stylish,” said Jamal, and he was right. It looked better than the cars your parents wanted you to buy–a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry or anything chosen for its crash cage or fuel efficiency. It was long and low on both ends, like a crocodile.
“Old,” said Greta, “but dirt cheap. We can split the insurance and gas. You in?”
The Mercedes started right up when they went to test-drive it. The car made it all the way to the end of the block before something popped beneath the hood and it rolled to a stop in the gutter. The engine coughed like an asthmatic grandma when they cranked the keys, but it eventually started.
“I don’t know, Greta,” Jamal said as she pulled the car back into traffic. “It’s basically a piece of shit.”
“Maybe. But it could be our piece of shit.” She tested the windshield wipers, and the left one licked over the glass. “Honestly, if I don’t get my own transportation soon, I’m going to lose it.”
Jamal fiddled with the radio knobs, and the speakers beneath the seats crackled. “You and me both.”
“It’s only fifty each. And we can fix it up.”
“And we can drive ourselves to work.”
“And we could take road trips.”
They gave into fantasies of the beach and concerts and independence, and by the time they got back from the test drive, buying the car wasn’t optional.
That summer they met up at Greta’s house every day and learned to strip the car down to its chassis and rebuild it again. They put in extra hours at work to afford new parts, because Mercy broke down at least once a week. Somehow, they kept it running most days.
Greta fondly recalls those long, hot days hunched over manuals and diagrams together. The best times were waiting for the engine to cool down. You couldn’t work on the engine hot, because the superheated metal would burn your fingers off. They would perch side by side on the curb and split a can of cheap beer one sip at a time while Mercy’s metal ticked and groaned and panted off the heat. They could talk about anything in those moments. About being poor. About parents. About what to do after high school. About how much the future scared them. About hope and failure and how everyone dies but sometimes it seemed like a myth adults used to keep kids from chasing their dreams. They never talked much about Greta’s boyfriend, or Jamal’s girlfriend, neither of which condoned the friendship.
When they graduated, they sold the car for a thousand bucks to a rich sophomore and split the cash. Greta used her cut to pay the first month’s rent on her new apartment and started working at an auto shop. Jamal, whose grades were terrible, joined the Army.
Before they parted, they made the map, the list, and the pact.
Four days out from Washington, D.C. and the blunt, old peaks of the Appalachian Mountains are rearing their heads on either side of the road. Greta takes the switchbacks too fast, and Jamal’s bionic leg makes a hollow metallic clank each time it hits the door.
He stares out at the sun-starved slopes, bionic forearm exposed to the dashboard where the glassy black solar panels are embedded. He hasn’t said much since she picked him up, and Greta hasn’t asked. Not about the war. Not about what took most of his body, or what it feels like to have molybdenum filaments welded to your brainstem.
Instead she keeps a running monologue about anything that comes to mind. “Did you know those peaks are 480 million years old? That back in the day, two big plates of earth collided, and forced them up? And ever since, gravity has been trying to grind them down again?”
Jamal doesn’t respond. In the dimness, Greta realizes he isn’t watching the landscape. He is gazing at his own reflection.
After high school, they talked every week, but always through screens. At each new post, Jamal would give her the grand tour of his dorm room by webcam. It always looked the same to Greta–the single-sized beds with hospital corners and the collapsible wardrobes where he hung his BDUs. There would be a roommate. Sometimes three. They would shout his last name from off-camera. Greta always knew if they were around because Jamal told more dick jokes and bragged about himself more, asked after her less, slouched back in his chair with a cocksure leer like he owned her.
Later, in private, he always apologized. “You can’t show weakness around these guys,” he would murmur to the webcam, like he were at Confession. “They’ll eat me alive.”
His shorn head made his eyes look huge and scared, like a newborn lamb’s. Because it made her throat heavy, Greta forgave him, and never mentioned how much it stung to be sacrificed for his survival among the wolves.
Once, when he first went off to Basic Training, Greta mailed him a box of homemade butterscotch cookies packed in stale popcorn. Jamal phoned her up immediately. “Don’t ever do that again,” he said. His C.O. had made him open the box in front of his whole unit and read her letter aloud. Her plain sentimentality had humiliated him.
The first time they chatted after his accident, it took Greta twenty minutes of steady pestering to convince Jamal to turn on his webcam. When he finally loaded in, she forced herself not to flinch away from the metallic sheet that covered half his face. They hadn’t matched the silicone skin to cover his bionics yet. His eyes kept dropping down on the webcam. Greta followed his gaze. He was watching his own video feed, she realized, searching for her reaction.
“Stop staring at my tits,” she said.
His eyes snapped up. “I–um, I’m sorry.”
Insults and lies were the price of another kind of survival.
They have reached the rolling green forests of western Kentucky when the car has its first breakdown. One moment, Greta is cruising, sipping bottled coffee in the early morning gray. Suddenly the engine just quits. She guides the car to the shoulder, coasting on momentum, and pops the hood. They both lean in and poke around Mercy’s guts and discuss what it could be while steam congeals in the humid air.
“I bet we blew the head gasket. I’ve got a spare in the trunk,” says Greta, edging around the guardrail to retrieve it. “But we’re going to have to wait for the engine to cool before we can do anything about it.”
By the time she fishes the gasket from the muddle in the trunk, Jamal has reached in with his right hand–the bionic one–and begun to unscrew the engine block’s casing.
Greta gives a low whistle. “That would’ve been useful when we were kids.”
For the first time he smiles. The bionic muscles mirror the fleshy side. He looks like himself again, only older. “Hand me a screwdriver. We’ll get Mercy going in no time.”
They work in silence. Greta can hear the birds in the forest below the guardrail. Mercy trembles every time a semi whooshes by. “What does it feel like?” asks Greta. “Does the heat bother you at all?”
“Not much.” He lines up the screws on the bumper. “I mean, it’s just like they say, it feels like a real hand with real sensation, but the silicone skin dulls the feeling. Blocks heat transfer and blunts my sense of touch.” He pauses to rub two bionic fingers together. “It feels like I’m always wearing heavy gloves.”
“Does it hurt? Can you feel pain?”
Jamal shrugs. “Usually only if I let the power get too low, if it’s too cloudy for solar and I’m away from an outlet. Everything starts slowing down, going dead, and when I finally recharge, the feeling comes back all at once. It stings like ant bites. Or broken glass, maybe. Hard to describe.”
“Well, there had to be a downside to being a cyborg,” Greta teases, but immediately regrets it.
Jamal reels away from her. “Fuck you. I didn’t want this.” He slams a bionic fist into the hood and the car rocks. “It’s not a superpower. I almost died.” “I’m sorry.” She touches his arm. The bionic one. “I’m just glad you’re home. I’ve missed you.”
He doesn’t answer for a long time, not until the head gasket is in place and he’s working on the last screw. “Greta,” he says, eyes fixed hard on the gasket, “I’m not what you remember. A lot has changed.” “Let’s try the engine.” It’s all she can squeeze past the lump in her throat. Mercy cranks up on the first try. Before they pull into traffic, Greta stores the broken gasket in the trunk.
Jamal hunches against the passenger window until evening, absently picking at bionic skin with fleshy fingers. He has already torn a little hole in the silicone covering his shoulder. The metal underneath gleams when the passing headlights catch it just right.
When Jamal takes a turn at the wheel, Greta kills time with the stash of backseat books, even though Mercy’s old-fashioned shocks make her a little carsick. When she exhausts the fiction, she reads about the paradox of consciousness: how the body’s cells are always building replacements for themselves before they die, so every ten years the human body becomes its own child. Somehow, it remains faithful to the ghost of its parent. Aristotle called this paradox the formal cause.
“Our bodies are younger than we are,” she tells Jamal. “Mine as well as yours.”
At night, if they are near a city, they split the tab on a cheap motel that always smells like mildew and cigarettes, and without discussion sleep back-to-back in the full-sized bed under the same blanket. Jamal makes her look away while he changes into gray sweats and a white tee. When he says it’s okay, she turns around to find him already in bed, facing the wall with the sheet pulled up to his ears. A charging cable snakes over his shoulder into the socket below the lamp plug.
When it is so late that even the highway falls silent outside the window, Greta feels Jamal’s body shudder with voiceless sobs.
She rolls over and faces his back. His arms are crisscrossed to his shoulders. Steel fingers draw out beads of blood, and flesh fingers shred the silicone. Greta places her palm flat against his back. She doesn’t know if there is skin or silicone beneath–if he can feel her touch at all–but she hopes some of the warmth passes through anyway.
Back when they were teens, they listed their road trip stops in the composition notebook. The route starts in Corvallis, Oregon at Greta’s parents’ house and ends in Washington, D.C. at Jamal’s grandmother’s apartment. Neither building exists anymore. The cities do, although parts have aged and died, and sections have been replaced with new houses and businesses and residents. Most of the roads traced in green marker on the old map are still there, although they shifted slightly and got repaved over the years.
Despite the changes, Jamal and Greta have not once gotten lost. Philosophers call this paradox the river of Heraclitus.
Six days out from Washington, D.C. and they are speeding through the rolling swells of the Great Plains, turning north at Kansas City to clip the corner of Iowa before bending due west across the expanse of Nebraska. It is a rippling green ocean beneath stormy skies and lashing rain. Jamal does the driving. The arm on the steering wheel has lost half its silicone skin now. It looks like he’s molting.
They have to stop twice to fix Mercy. The second breakdown loses them nearly a whole day, because they have to hitchhike to an autoparts store for another gallon of transmission fluid. Greta worries about the patchy repair, but decides it should hold a few more days. Long enough to fulfill their promise.
They only make it fifty miles before they stop for the night, and in the motel room, Jamal is so listless he doesn’t ask Greta to turn away when he strips off his shirt and plugs himself into the wall. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized just how much of him had been replaced. The silicone sheathes his body from the waist upwards, wrapping around his back so only his upper chest and left arm are exposed above the bionics. There is less than half of him left.
“Are you okay?” she asks, because he seems ill, and because seeing the damage for the first time has left her hands trembling. “Can I get you anything?”
Jamal clenches his jaw and shakes his head. “No. Just ran low on power, with the weather like it is. I’ll be okay again in a few hours, when I’m recharged.” He closes his eyes. His hands ball around fistfuls of blanket, and his lips draw into a grimace.
Greta volunteers to get dinner–she needs to refill the grease cans anyway. When she returns, Jamal has fallen asleep. His chest expands in time with his shallow breathing, and sweat beads his forehead.
Greta takes her burger outside and perches on Mercy’s hood while she mulls over the problem. Finally, she digs through the spare parts in the trunk and finds some wires and an old cell phone adaptor and gets to work. The next morning, she presents her invention to Jamal. “What’s this?” he asks, twisting the cord between metallic fingers.
“Adaptor for the cigarette lighter. So you can charge yourself with Mercy on the way.”
In Wyoming, they reach the Rocky Mountains, which are young and green and cut triangles from the sky with their impossibly sharp peaks.
“I’m sorry,” says Jamal, who has begun talking a lot more in the last couple days. His shirt is hiked up to expose his charging jack connected to the cigarette lighter. He finished peeling the silicone from his bionic arm, and now he is starting on the patch over his belly.
“What for?” asks Greta.
“For not being here for you.”
She shrugs. “Well, that’s what happens when you join the Army. They send you away. It’s not like it was your fault or anything.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He drops another brown silicone strip on the floor with the French fry wrappers and dried-out orange peels. “I mean, the other guys never called after what happened to me. And I was so shitty to you over the years. I took you for granted.”
“Yeah,” Greta agrees.
Now that the silicone skin is gone from his face, she can see the bionic plates rearrange themselves into a frown. “How did you get Mercy back, anyway? After we sold it?”
Greta flashes a secret smile. “I never lost track of Mercy. I bought it back from that kid less than a year later, once I had the funds.”
“It was the only way we were ever going to fulfill our pact.”
Jamal is silent for a moment. “I never knew it meant so much to you.”
At Salt Lake City, they turn northwest and begin their final leg through the desert of southern Idaho, where thick, prickly scrub grips the earth up to the shores of the Snake River. They floor the gas pedal on the flats, windows rolled down so the wind rips at their hair. The stereo blasts AC/DC, the only cassette tape they have, and they sing along at the top of their lungs.
When the Check Engine light comes on, Greta and Jamal pop the hood and Jamal reaches in, only to snatch his hand back. “Ow!” He touches bionic fingers to his mouth. “It’s hot.”
“Obviously.” Greta takes a seat on the curbside. “We better wait for it to cool, now that you’re not heatproof.”
Greta can’t ignore the little puddle forming on the pavement underneath Mercy’s hood. Ever since Nebraska three days ago, she has worried about the transmission. She has been worried about Mercy the whole trip, about the dwindling replacement parts in the trunk, worried something beyond her skill to repair might break. Greta could pack many things, but you couldn’t store a spare transmission in the trunk.
The niggling thought needles her. Greta lunges underneath the car and touches the puddle. Red. “Fuck it.”
“What’s wrong?” Jamal asks.
“Fuck. Transmission’s kaput. Fuck, fuck, fuck.” She buries face in hands.
Jamal prods around Mercy’s guts. “Yeah, we’re not gonna be able to fix this out here.” He shades his eyes and scans the desert’s vast emptiness around them.
“Fuck.” Greta feels the ground falling away. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. She and Jamal were supposed to get home, get Mercy home, in one piece. It was the pact. It was the cure. The car had always broken down the barriers between them, and now it’s just broken down.
She listens to Jamal’s footsteps retreat. A door opens and closes. Footsteps approach.
“Okay, this isn’t so bad,” says Jamal, squatting beside her with the ancient road map. “We can’t be more than thirty miles southeast of Boise, tops. We can walk that. Get a rental car. We’ll be in Corvallis tomorrow night if we get moving.”
“Nuh uh,” says Greta, words muffled by her palms.
“Hey, what’s wrong? You giving up?”
Greta shakes her head, and wipes at tears. “I was supposed to get us home. And Mercy–”
He touches her arm. It’s his right hand–the bionic one–and the cool metal warms against her skin. “It’s okay,” he says gently. “I can get us to Boise.”
This was the pact Jamal and Greta made on their graduation night when they carpooled home in Mercy, the pact written on the composition notebook’s last page: When they were older, when they had time and money and could unite again, they would drive Mercy from coast to coast following the route on the map.
“What should we swear on?” Jamal asked. All pacts required an oath.
“Friendship,” said Greta. “I swear on our friendship we’ll make the trip.”
For their hike, they take beef jerky and oranges and Jamal’s green duffel bag. They also take Mercy’s battery. The hike is hard for Greta. She isn’t used to such a trip, or the desert, and she is crushed with grief over abandoning Mercy after all these years. Jamal, though, is in high spirits. As long as the sunlight holds, his bionic legs cannot tire. At dusk, he offers his arms to Greta. “Plug in the battery, and I’ll walk us through the night.”
Greta wires his charging jack to the battery and reluctantly allows him to scoop her up. Her head settles against the metal plate on the right side of his chest, and its coolness feels refreshing on her skin. Beneath the plate she feels the lub-dub of his heart–the real one–and she asks, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll be bored in Corvallis, now that you’ve seen the world?”
Jamal just laughs. The vibrations make his bionic exoskeleton ring against her cheek. “After what I’ve been through? No thanks. I’m just ready to be home again. Corvallis is home.”
“People change,” she says. “People outgrow things.”
He snorts. “Not that much.”
He’s right, Greta realizes. It is the paradox of the essential element. The parts may change, but something at the core holds steady all the same. This is why no matter how much he changed, she would always recognize him.
Jamal and Greta arrive in Corvallis in a rented 2025 Toyota sedan that smells like new car and, faintly, like French fries. Electric, of course. The trunk contains a spare tire and an old battery and nothing else. The glove compartment holds an old road map with the way home traced in green marker and an old composition notebook with some faded writing, and new page written in bright blue ink.
They amended the rules of the pact when they reached Boise. Friends can do that.
New ships rise plank by plank from the wreckage of the old, and they become the ship that carried Theseus home. New roads run over ancient routes and arrive at the same destination. New waters flow through desiccated riverbeds, and become in fact the same river. New cities grow from broken ruins, and all the residents call themselves Athenians. Two old friends meet in entirely new bodies which carry within their cells a memory of love from the day they were last together, and they reshape each other into what they remember being, but never materially were.
All of it holds together like the chassis of an old Mercedes rebuilt from new parts, loaded down with a trunkful of memories.
Aristotle called this paradox the final cause.
When they reach Corvallis, Greta and Jamal grab coffee in the early morning dark at a cafe with stained glass windows. They drove all night, spurred by restlessness and a hunger for home.
The barista flinches a little at Jamal’s exposed faceplate, but he is so lost in nostalgia that only Greta notices.
“I remember when this building was a church,” says Jamal.
“I remember that too.” She sips her coffee, and it is just like when they used to wait for the engine to cool down.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”
“You always have a place with me at the shop,” she says. “I think you’d be good for business, being half-machine now.” Greta tenses, hoping she hasn’t gone too far, but Jamal just swirls his cup between two mismatched hands.
“I’m worried, Greta,” he says. “Worried everyone will expect me to be what I used to be. But there’s no going back. It’s not just this–” he waves at his face–“it’s what’s inside. The fear. I don’t know what I am anymore.”
“You’re Jamal,” Greta tells him.
“But how do you know?” Jamal asks, and she feels his strange monocular eye telescoping to focus on her.
“Because I say so, that’s why. You’re my best friend Jamal, I say so, and no one else gets a vote.”
This is what is written in blue ink on the last page of the composition notebook:
We swear on our friendship that someday, we’ll drive Mercy from coast to coast on the route in this book.
Anything we drive together is Mercy.
About the Author
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction from her secret android lair. Rachael’s fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts.
About the Narrator
Dave Thompson aka the Easter Werewolf aka the California King is still uncomfortable with the notion of pumpkin beer, but don’t hold that against him. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five years, stepping down to focus on his own writing in 2015. You can find two of his audiobook narrations on Amazon: Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt. Dave is an Escape Artists’ Worldwalker and Storyteller, having been published in, and narrated for, all four EA podcasts.