Exploring the ethics of fairness with physical modifications

“What’s your dream?”

“To become the world’s best combat fighter, of course!”

I was six when I first stepped into the studio. My parents wanted me to start training along with my brother. He was 11 at the time, and the few glimpses I got of him were awe-inspiring even through the blurred glass window.

“Kai is very talented,” commented the coach, smiling as he made his way across the room to my parents. “At this rate, he may become the youngest athlete to make the national team.”

From behind, Kai grinned at me. He walked toward me and ruffled my hair, chuckling, “Nah, Eli will probably beat me. Once he learns, he’ll pick it up way faster than me.”

I looked at him with wide eyes. “Really?” I didn’t see how I could beat a genius.

He paused for a moment, as if thinking about the truth of his prior statement, before concluding, “Yeah.” 

“Why?” I thought I could never reach Kai’s level, let alone surpass him.

He shrugged. “You’re good at everything like that,” he said simply.

One day, I returned to the studio to find Kai on the roof, lying down with his eyes closed. My friends and I had finished practice hours ago and gone to get dinner together, but my brother had stayed behind to train for three hours more. Even after years of practicing alongside him, I marveled at his dedication.

Kai opened his eyes as he heard my footsteps. Taking a seat next to him, I offered the takeout meal I had bought for him. “Whatcha thinking about?” I asked.

“You and all of your classmates,” he mumbled with a yawn. He slowly sat up and opened the takeout, taking several bites before continuing, “You’re all monsters. I can’t compete with that anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I had no idea what he was talking about. Yes, everyone my age somehow seemed to be really talented fighters, but Kai had still been training longer, after all. And harder. And he was undeniably talented, too. “You’re still better than all of us.”

“For now, I suppose,” he murmured as he stared off into space, clutching his water bottle tightly. “But there’s only so far I can go.”

It was a few months before national tryouts. Kai had been training like crazy, and by his encouragement, the rest of us were too.

I was out for a run when I got a phone call from Kai saying that he had just gotten out of the ER. Sorry, what?

“It’s okay. My spinal cord was kind of damaged, but it’s going to be fine. It can be fixed. That’s all that matters,” he chirped.

“How can you get half of your body paralyzed and say that it’s fine?” I demanded through the phone.

“Don’t worry! Technology these days is amazing. They can do a whole neural reconstruction operation by tonight, and then I’ll be good to go,” he reassured. “Anyways, I need you to come here before the surgery happens.”

When I arrived, Kai was sitting in a wheelchair, squinting hard at a catalog on the giant screen above, neck craning to look up.

“That one,” he said, pointing at an option labeled KR-301. “Stop right there.”

A bearded man, who seemed more of a businessman than a doctor, did so gleefully, rattling off a list of statistics about KR-301. Sharpened proprioception. Enhanced motor control. State of the art for its kind. Also one of the most expensive models on the market.

As he raved on, I leaned toward Kai and whispered, “Why that one?” It seemed a little extra, especially with the price.

He looked at me with an unreadable gaze before sighing, “You wouldn’t get it, bro.”

It turned out neural reconstruction was not governmentally-approved for officiated fighting, so Kai ended up barred from the national team. He had beaten everyone at tryouts, but, after investigation, his surgery was cited as an illicit means of performance-enhancement. Kai angrily left and locked himself up in the studio. I think he just practiced in there all night.

“Did you know that you were born better than me?” said Kai one day out of the blue.

“Huh?” I looked up from my homework to where he was lying on the couch next to me. “I know I’m better than you. Except maybe at fighting. You might just be a little bit better.”

He let out a laugh. “No, I mean you were designed to be born better than me.”

I paused. “What do you mean?”

“You know, GEM, the gene editing program. Mom and Dad tried their best to optimize you before you were born. I’m guessing your friends are like that too.”

Oh right, that thing. “What, and they just chose worse enhancements for you? I don’t think they would have done that.”

“No,” he said slowly, side-eying me. “GEM didn’t become commercially available until the year after I was born.”

“Oh,” I said dumbly. It never struck me that Kai had been born before GEM came out.

He smiled wryly at my reaction. “That’s why I was always complaining about your generation of beasts. Had to work myself to the bone just to keep up with you guys even with a five-year lead.” He laughed humorlessly. “And even that wasn’t enough. I thought getting surgery would work, but apparently biological modifications aren’t allowed in the sporting world if they happen after you’re born.”

I let him rant. I was surprised that Kai hadn’t shown a reaction to the tryouts incident sooner.

“And it’s not even like those surgeries are open to everyone. I was only eligible for neural reconstruction because I suffered severe neural damage. Do you how painful it was to jump from that height–”

“You did that on purpose?!”

“Yeah, I just told you that I thought getting surgery was the only way to stay competitive. All the young blood these days are like you, you know. Genetic freaks.”

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