From the nightmare of the twenty-first century emerged a new technology that, though it did little to stave off the twin forces of global wealth inequality and worldwide environmental destruction driving the planet towards system-wide collapse, did create the conditions for some rather interesting legal and psychiatric quandaries. The technology itself was a form of primitive teleportation, in the same way that we might consider the fax machine, if you’re familiar with that device, a form of teleportation. To be more precise, the technology was actually a merging of two different technologies, genetic cloning and three-dimensional bioprinting, which created the effect of teleportation, after a few more bells and whistles were included. A twenty-first century person walked into a cloning machine in flooded Miami and stepped out of a bioprinting machine in fiery Brisbane and they called it teleportation. The technology was hailed as a “breakthrough” and a “marvel” in the contemporary press, which made a great deal of its revolutionary potential to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with global travel and global supply chains and to unfetter work and housing and contemporary social life from the expenses associated with cars and commutes and the production of oil. A great number of advertisements aired beginning with the phrase, “Imagine a world…,” over a background of wind turbines and grassy meadows rolling into the sea, babies in wool knit hats swinging on swings, diners dining in carless city streets, hissing lava pushing against ocean waves in a beautiful metaphor of growth and progress and new life. The ads promised vague visions of a techno-utopia in muted blue and silver tones, but teleportation delivered on none of these. Instead, the government-subsidized technology was immediately privatized and contracted out to a small number of defense firms who developed it into a multi-trillion-dollar industry where market concentration meant that cost savings only served to enable more shareholder payouts and corporate stock buybacks, where new efficiencies only served to open new markets in developing countries that up until then had been too poor to be worth exploiting in the first place, where the resource consumption required to meet new consumer demand quickly outpaced any putative green savings, and so, in the end, rare-earth mining increased, industry leaders held the first teleportation conference in history, aggregate greenhouse gas emissions rose, teleports opened on every continent including a scientific research base in Antarctica, indebted workers coughed and sputtered and choked as their lungs filled with fluid until they drowned in plain air from silicosis, with a profound sense of loss executives scrapped their now defunct private planes for parts, health insurance companies denied miners’ claims with impunity, online stores added teleportation delivery fees to their virtual shopping carts, medically-bankrupt families signed the silica-riddled bodies of their loved ones over to the state for cremation because they couldn’t afford the funerals, several business magazines added a trillionaire category to their net worth rankings, and the maws of capital devoured on.
In the midst of all this upheaval, Jonathan Slotter, a thirty-one-year-old marine biologist, walked into a cloning machine in flooded Miami and stepped out of a bioprinting machine in Brisbane. (Miami was, by all accounts, flooded on that particular day, but Brisbane was not ablaze, the most recent wildfires having been contained thanks to wet weather.) His stated purpose, repeated flatly and without conviction to both his wife of several years and to the customs officer at the teleport, was to study ocean deacidification or some other such similarly impotent and futile mitigation technique in the southern Great Barrier Reef. He had recently won a grant, pinned upon the hope that a research partnership between American and Australian universities might speed the pace of progress and save the last tenth of one percent of coral left, a number that was optimistically high, in the end. His other purpose, left unspoken, was to hedge, delay, and postpone a certain commitment he had made to his wife.
Now our first Jonathan Slotter was an educated man, a man who had earned his doctorate and worked in one of the most prestigious university marine biology departments in the world. But long years studying the secretion of calcium carbonate by stony coral does not make one a historian of science. Which is to say that Jonathan understood the history of teleportation in the same way that he understood the history of the telephone. In the case of teleportation, a man named Charles Bell combined cloning and bioprinting technology—the goal was to reduce the cost of transporting troops to and through hostile terrain—and teleportation was born. In an unusual flourish for a white-frocked research scientist using federal dollars, during a live demonstration, he tested the concept on his family’s parakeet. His children, in the audience, shrieked with terror and could never quite believe that the new bird wasn’t a trick replacement of some kind. In school, on multiple choice questions about who invented which device, teachers liked to list Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Bell as two of the options for both the telephone and teleportation. The mnemonic device that Jonathan developed to deal with this question, which occurred on at least one exam a year from fourth through ninth grade, was to remember that the telephone came first, just like Alexander comes before Charles alphabetically. Here Jonathan’s historical knowledge ended, and he had never considered that limit to be very troubling.
Jonathan also understood the basic mechanism at work in teleportation technology, but like most people he knew, he preferred not to dwell on it too deeply. Cloning and bioprinting had existed for decades before the invention of teleportation. Charles Bell’s real contribution to the equation was speed: an algorithm for protein-sequencing that reduced computer processing load enough to make teleportation economically feasible, at least for large and technologically sophisticated global military powers. Charles Bell was also willing to deal with the problem of disposal: stone-faced and square-shouldered, he chose his language carefully and never deviated. In the early meetings, the bio-ethicists and the lawyers would ask, “What happens to the original?” and the unwavering, unflappable Bell would answer, “The application meets all state and federal guidelines for biohazardous waste disposal.”
Jonathan didn’t know this story—it hadn’t been part of his grade school curriculum—but he understood the basic idea of not thinking too much about things he didn’t need to think about. He didn’t tour slaughterhouses, for example; he was merely grateful that his dinners didn’t look like a massacre at a petting zoo. Still, stepping into a teleportation machine was unnerving, akin to his experience of flying. By the time Jonathan came along, the commercial flight industry no longer existed, but he had taken aerial tours on vacations. He could not help thinking about the fact that a pilot he had never met before was going to launch them into the sky in an aluminum cylinder the thickness of his cellphone case. In those moments, waiting for takeoff, he couldn’t help but think about the physics of flight, thrust and lift and drag, and wrap his fingers very tightly but discreetly around the handle of his carry-on backpack, as if it could somehow provide him cushioning enough to save him in the event they fell into the trees.
So stepping into the teleportation booth on his way to Australia to study the results of deacidification technology on the southern Great Barrier Reef, Jonathan thought of propellers and abattoirs, set his jaw and planted his feet very much like Charles Bell in a boardroom, and waited to emerge on the other side.
The floor of the teleportation booth was a trapdoor that opened into a chute down which John slid until landing in another room, completely dark and intensely warm, hot, burning, raging, an annihilating oven which John understood instantly, despite the maze of neural circuitry he had devoted to never thinking about this place, was the incineration room. The fact that he was still alive meant that the incinerator was not functioning properly. The heat was residual, and although it threatened to roast him slowly, he found that if he wrapped his shirt around his hands, he could stand to touch the walls. He searched through the heat searing his fingertips, which began to bubble and bleed, until he found his one hope for escape, a metal panel with a hinge along the side, some sort of access door. He kicked wildly, feeling the panel bounce against the latch on the other side. He kicked again and again until he heard the sound of metal scrape against itself and he thought he might live. On the final kick, the door swung out heavy and wide, a red light glowed before him, and he half-scrambled, half-climbed out into a warm maintenance passage—that felt comparatively cool to him—full of small, chest-high furnace doors that stretched in either direction like the long hallway of a cremation hotel. Next to each door hung padded leather gloves, a stainless steel scoop, and a coarse-bristled brush; underneath, a wide metal drawer and handle. The sliding latch lay on the floor, two splintered screws eaten by heat and rust and age sticking straight up from the plate.
He found an air vent and cooled his face and hands. A long way off, he heard someone pushing a wheeled cart or mop bucket and a woman’s voice singing what sounded like a love song. Or maybe it was a lovesick song, he couldn’t be sure, and then that disjunctive notion of love in the crematorium broke the stupor of his shock and it finally occurred to him to hide.
He didn’t know what the protocol might be for someone in his situation, but he knew he wasn’t supposed to be alive. He was supposed to be biohazardous waste and his copy, driving towards the ferry that would take him to Heron Island, possessed whatever combination of documents and signatures the international judicial community deemed necessary for the recognition of personhood. His John, the John that he embodied, was already dead, and he didn’t know what would happen if he were caught, but it was not hard to imagine that the executive leadership team of this teleport and the executive leadership team of the malfunctioning teleportation machine itself might wish to avoid a scandal, and that the best way to do so in their eyes might be to quickly and quietly reenact the incineration portion of the teleportation process sans malfunction the second time. John made a decision then that he was a fugitive, and that he needed to think and act like one. He moved away from the woman’s singing, following the procession of furnaces until he found a warehousing space and a loading dock where he switched out his unwearably sweat- and blood-soaked shirt for a slightly stained but mostly clean white shirt with a little vector art insignia of a globe with an arrow circling it, the teleport company’s logo, that he found balled up in the seat of a golf cart. At which point he ventured out of the maintenance areas into the teleport proper, making his way towards departures and smiling bashfully at anyone who seemed to notice the shirt stain as if to say, “I can be so silly sometimes,” until he began to see the signs for ground transportation and the rental car agencies.
He would have to use his credit card; he saw no other way. Standing in the rental car line, he played out increasingly unlikely scenarios, the kind involving jackboots and chain link cages. Still, the part of his brain managing to stay rational knew that even in the best of cases, as soon as he tapped his card, a countdown timer would begin. The charge would post instantly, and either the credit card company would flag the transaction as fraud and temporarily suspend his card, or his copy, checking his financial statements from Australia, would see the charge, assume identity theft, and call the card company himself. John thought he had a slight advantage here. He hadn’t upgraded his phone plan to enable international calling before he left, and knowing his copy as he did, he knew Jonathan was unlikely to stop and do so until he reached his quarters on the research station, which meant that of the two cellphones of his in the world right now, John had the only one operating.
“Lose your car in the parking lot?” the man behind the counter asked.
“What?” John said.
He had managed to shuffle his way to the front of the line without realizing it, and now stood before a man with a face as bright and round as a sunflower.
“Lose your car in the parking lot?” the man repeated.
The joke finally registered. “Oh, because of the shirt,” John said.
“You work here, don’t you?”
“Wife dropped me off but can’t come get me,” John said, which was, in fact, the truth.
The man shrugged and asked John what type of car he’d like. When it came time to pay, the card worked, and the cheery-faced agent gave John the set of keys and a parking spot number like he wasn’t a strange and stateless nonperson in legal limbo between the living and the dead.
He drove the same way he had driven the first time he was sixteen and stoned, when he wanted nothing more than to floor it as hard as he could and be home safe in his bed, but knowing that he had to drive perfectly, naturally and legally, just under the speed limit, both hands properly spaced on the steering wheel in the nine and three o’clock positions, until he pulled into a charging station about twenty minutes from the teleport, far enough away to feel anonymous, and his vision tunneled and he shook until he was gasping for breath. Then the sobs came, shuddering through his body, and when like floodwaters they finally receded, the anxiety was gone. He was still afraid, but he felt a calm mental clarity, the clear air after a storm, and he tried to lock into that state, to hold it within himself as he shifted into drive.
In those moments of tranquility, in the soft blue glow of his dashboard, he realized with astonishment that the floor of the incinerator had been grated, and the drawers with the handles had been trays to collect the ashes. John tried to count the number of times he had teleported before today. He was a copy of a copy of a copy a dozen times over because up until this point he had always been the one being printed on the other side. He had to wonder what had happened the first time they decided to test teleportation on a human subject. They had to have known what would happen; they had to have conducted inanimate object and animal subject tests first. What did they do with the doubling? How did they decide which version to keep? He thought that, perhaps, in the early days, they might have actually kept the original rather than the copy for fear of transfer errors, deletions and transpositions, mistakes in the code. Surely the copy was locked away in a lab somewhere for study, or cryogenically frozen, or harvested for organs, but always inevitably and irrevocably tending towards death. The real question was not what would happen, but how. How, in those intervening days between creation and destruction, did the scientists deal with the obvious humanity of the clone? Did they attempt to separate themselves as scientists from their subject, store him in a soundproof room where he couldn’t plead his case, where his racked keens couldn’t be heard? The clone would have known, would have had the same memory and consciousness as the original, the auto-parent that had agreed to these tests with full knowledge of their desired outcomes.
When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he spoke into the transmitter, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” and Watson complied. Did Watson, Bell’s assistant, actually believe he was being summoned by telephone? Or did he think Bell was merely calling out loudly enough to be heard from the other room? At some point, technology surpassed the expertise of the layperson, entered a realm indistinguishable from magic. The manipulation of tiny particles, invisible waves, forces no human being can see that nevertheless produce specific and material changes in the world around us. And at some point, technology’s destructive power surpassed human comprehension. John thought of the hundreds of billions of cattle killed for food in abattoirs over the course of human history; he thought of the bleached and dying coral and tried to weigh on the scales of justice their collective cry.
The anxiety that the panic attack had relieved began to return as he got closer and closer to home. He couldn’t quite explain it, this sense of being watched, of being hunted, of being prey, but it felt like overwhelming dread, like powerful forces were conspiring to ensure the death he had so narrowly avoided. After all, for them, it would merely be good customer service. So he drove around his neighborhood looking for signs—he wasn’t sure what: black cars with too much window tint? men in bushes with binoculars? blinds drawn closed as he drove by?—until he started to worry that his own circling would get the police called on him, and he pulled up to the curb a few houses down from his own to consider his options.
Although the door was locked, John knew the house would have been easy enough to break into—they lived in the sort of suburban neighborhood where they didn’t feel compelled to have a security system—but he couldn’t let go of the idea that he’d be damaging his own property, that he’d be giving himself the chore of fixing it later. He still hadn’t adjusted to the new reality that the window was not his window but their window. He was still lost in the dream that he could salvage his original life.
She would come home, his once wife, from the school where she taught, from an exhausting day of teaching, he was sure, as all of her days were exhausting. Doubtless wanting nothing more than to start her evening ritual, a footbath, a gift from her sister several years ago that had become the favorite part of her day after long hours of standing on her feet. To sit in the quiet and darkening house and ponder changes to her lesson plans tomorrow, or procrastinate on writing Christmas thank you notes, or wonder what new line of thinking might convince John that now was the time to have the child he had promised and delayed. In some ways, he had become his own child, born in a malfunctioning human disposal machine this morning, brought home tonight, and here to ask her to take him in, feed and bathe and clothe him, and not turn him out into the night.
They had been fighting, in the weeks before he left, about him leaving in the first place. He had a pattern, by that point, of partnering with far-flung universities on research grants that kept him from home for months at a time. In this case, Australia from mid-January to mid-June, and, with the exception of a week in March, he and Danielle would not see each other in-person the entire time. Danielle called this field work of his “mini-escapes.” She said she felt as if he were abandoning her a little bit at a time, trying out a different sort of life, one without her, to see if he wanted to make the change permanent.
At some point, shifting uncomfortably against the upholstery of the rental car and waiting for Danielle to return, John decided to call her. He couldn’t barge in on her in surprise; she was too likely to think it was him—his copy, Jonathan—home on a whim, some kind of romantic gesture. He hated to admit it even to himself, but in that moment he realized his strategy, to position himself as the one who was there, who was present, willing to be home with her, to hold her in his arms, while the other one was away, at the other end of the earth. So he pulled up her number on his cell phone and called, but she didn’t answer, and he didn’t leave a message. She wouldn’t have bothered to listen to it. She would have been too likely to have assumed that he was calling to let her know he’d arrived safely in Australia, that he was unpacking at the research quarters the university had arranged for his stay, that he was on the way to reef. Nothing news not worth the time and effort of calling up her voicemail. John texted instead, asking her to call him when she had a chance.
As he settled in to wait, he realized with a sort of bored horror that the rental car had become his little world, his only stable shelter, so long as the credit card continued to function. He considered getting a hotel room if Danielle refused to let him stay, but that would be another charge, another identifying location, another clue in the chain of clues that would lead to him. He considered his willingness to steal the car should Jonathan cancel the credit card. The car would have a tracker, but John was willing to bet that the sequence of steps involved—realizing the car had been stolen, calling it in, locating it, sending the police to retrieve it—would take some time, time that he was willing to use to his advantage. He felt strange and unnerved and more than a little terrified as he began to believe that this rented car was his only lifeline, his only possession that might make a difference in a life or death scenario, and he considered how much of any given person’s happiness was predicated on the ability to ignore their own precarity—their rented home, their leased car, their rising cholesterol—just to stave off for one more day their own complete and total collapse. He considered buying a car, something for sale by owner and therefore, in theory, a bit more difficult to track, although he would have to steal the cash from Jonathan and Danielle’s savings account. He considered his newfound tendency to think of himself as outside his own marriage—their savings account, not his, unless he could somehow convince Danielle to choose him and sacrifice the other—and to think of himself as mutually exclusive with another human being, which made him laugh sadly: “This town ain’t big enough for the both us.” He considered his own descent into paranoia, his newfound tendency to think of himself as outside the law, as a fugitive within a larger juridical-corporal order of punishment and pain. He considered the changes he would like to make to the car, cataloging the ideas through the long hours of the afternoon: seats that fully recline to lie flat, seat belt buckles that tuck into the seats so that they wouldn’t poke into his sides and back if he wanted to sleep, a larger cup holder, seat warmers, more storage space, some kind of hidden locking compartment besides the glove box to hold his wallet and phone, a minifridge, etc. etc. He made a list of toiletries to buy at the grocery store, food that would keep in the car, a newspaper to read, or better yet a book if the store had any, because, he considered, for all the fear and anxiety and doubt and other unmanageable and unnamable emotions, the predominant one, the one he would name if asked how he felt, the one that surfaced above all the rest, was, ultimately, boredom.
As the little electric clock in the car flitted towards and then past the end of the working day, John realized Danielle wasn’t going to call, which was telling in itself, so he called her again. When she answered, it sounded like she was driving and had put him on speaker so that their voices were amplified and yet still far away, as if they were each separated in two great and lightless caverns but connected by a long, low tunnel, their voices shouted down the crawlway and carried along the uneven rock and the skittering legs of insects and the hard shells of their folded wings.
On that year’s Christmas card and on all of the Christmas cards since they’d gotten married, Jonathan’s mother addressed her as “Mrs. Jonathan Slotter,” which irritated Danielle Slotter, née Dessen, but which meant, she supposed, that this John standing in front of her was actually the third John, and she, Danielle, was the second, in the biblical view in which she was subsumed by her husband and became him, flesh of his flesh, the necessary appendage that he might satisfy his sexual imperative and bear children. And if they, Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Slotter, were to have a child, a boy, and make him a junior, then he would become the third and rightful Jonathan Slotter, but her husband had no interest in that, had run away to Australia to study the sexless bodies of coral in order to avoid all that, and so she had made up her mind, when he left for the teleport, that she was willing to leave too, although she assumed she’d have a semester-long sabbatical length of time to figure out that plan. So she was rather irritated, at first, when John called—because he didn’t call, for many years now in the call logs of their phones her little icons reached out and his mostly answered, but only rarely did his green arrows initiate, which is to say that she called him, that she was the call and he was the response, and right then she didn’t want him to call because right then she wanted that time apart to weigh her options without his presence or interference, if he wanted to go to Australia then let him go—but for the duration of that conversation, in which all John told her was that he was back and he needed to speak to her, in which he carefully avoided giving the reason for this sudden turn of events, she couldn’t help but wonder why he suddenly wanted to talk so badly.
She was irritated, yes, but oddly giddy too. An elated, unlikely sort of joy. Years ago, when they were still dating, it was Jonathan who first broached the topic of having children. They had just had sex, were cleaning themselves in the bathroom, when he said he couldn’t imagine not having her in the world, but since he knew that she couldn’t live forever, he wanted to create with her the next best thing, a daughter, another version of her that would live on after she died, someone they could love and raise together. It was sweet and flattering and unflattering and darkly grim and maybe a little weird in the brightness of the bathroom lights as she perched on the toilet and pushed his semen out of her body.
“I mean,” he said, “I’m bursting with love for you. It has to go somewhere. It has to do something. Become manifest. And I want to save you and keep you, right—that’s normal, right, to want to protect my beloved—and I know it’s futile, but there’s something beautiful and comforting in the idea that you’ll live on in her, that I can help you, that we can cheat death together in some small way.” He paused for a moment. “Please, say something, save me from this blabbering.”
She looked at him from her ridiculous position and said, “I’m so lucky to have you.”
His face fell a bit, she thought, when she said that. It was perhaps not as effusive as he’d been hoping for. But she did feel grateful, and fortunate, and loved in a big warm blanket kind of way that wrapped around her and never left her toes awkwardly stuck out and cold.
But his feelings in that moment, she realized later, may have been more infatuation than love. Post-sex and early days. Which is not to say that he didn’t develop real love for her—she knew he loved her—but his desire to save her genetic line from bodily demise took on a more abstract, theoretical sense as more immediate career and financial goals entered the picture. And so when she tried to pin down specifics, put a date on this plan of theirs, she found then that Jonathan had become the less effusive one. Suddenly he wasn’t ready to have that conversation, or he wanted to discuss the idea when they were more financially stable, a concept with vague criteria at best, or he couldn’t think about that right now. Which led to nagging which led to frustration which led to resentment which ultimately settled into a stalemate in which they both agreed that they would have children—two being the desired number—and many other such critical decisions were made—a gender neutral nursery, baptized in the church, public school but in the right neighborhood, etc., etc.—but the decision on when to stop birth control and actually start procreating was left infinitely undecided, like Zeno’s Achilles, racing to the present moment just in front of him yet always slipping away on the ceaseless passage of time. Danielle could talk about anything related to their children except actually having them, and Jonathan was always game for these theoretical exercises until he wasn’t, and when that line was crossed, he simply ended the conversation, went into his study, and worked.
There were times when Danielle berated herself for being one of those women who need children to feel fulfilled, a performance she felt compelled to undertake as if to prove to herself her own feminist bona fides, a monologue that often took on the tones of Jonathan’s voice in her head, and then she remembered that it was perfectly valid to feel sad about wanting something and being unable to have it, and, moreover, to feel sad about a husband who refused to live up to the commitments he had made.
The semi-solution she found in parenting magazines. She purchased the first in the grocery store checkout line, mostly out of curiosity, partly to thumb it in Jonathan’s face. The magazine was horrid, retrogressive, and disgusting. It was, first and foremost, a vehicle to shove advertising in its readers’ faces. Even the articles were advertisements. Columns on the best car seats, the best formula, the best makeup for pre-teen girls, all with prices and suggested retail outlets included. What wasn’t an advertisement was blatant sexism. Decorating tips, recipes, fashion. She threw the magazine away but started digging deeper, eventually stumbling upon a magazine, Mother and Child, that she respected. Longer articles, many written by child psychologists and pediatricians. Articles that managed to remember, in spite of the magazine’s name, that most children have fathers too. And the topics were serious-minded: managing defiant behavior, fostering a growth mindset, what to look for when touring schools. And so Danielle began a semi-secret fantasy life in which she read these articles and imagined the situations as applied to her own children. And she shared her ideas with Jonathan, in that abstract way in which they spoke of children so as to avoid a fight, and they had long and fruitful conversations about childrearing, and agreed on many key points, and compromised on others, and Danielle managed to delay without recrimination her desire to have children for a while.
Meanwhile, Jonathan moved them from graduate school to research post to visiting professorship to tenure-track position, where they finally settled into a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house a few miles from campus. At which point they were, they both realized, as financially secure as they would ever be. And so Jonathan’s excuses dwindled and he began, so it seemed to her, to search for new ones. She didn’t believe he was consciously trying to avoid the subject, but when the grant that earned him his tenure-track position ended, and he began casting his nets for new opportunities, she could not help but notice that each one he considered seemed farther afield than the last. That was how he found his current project, at the University of Queensland, on the other side of the world. She was hard pressed to think of a spot further away. He might have managed more remote, some cay or atoll in the middle of the ocean only reachable by satellite phone and impossible for non-scientists to visit, and so she had the cold comfort of knowing that it could have been worse, although to her mind Australia was pretty far down the bad scale.
As he prepared to leave, she prepared too. She made some decisions then about what she wanted from her life and from her life with Jonathan, and she made some unspoken ultimatums as well. When he returned from his trip, she would speak with him, and tell him that they needed to set a date together, and that these commitments could not be put off any longer. She laid the groundwork several days before he left, telling him that she was feeling a bit abandoned, and that she did not want to continue to feel this way. And so when he called, when he told her he was waiting outside for her to come home, even though rationally she knew that something was wrong, that he was not doing this for her, she couldn’t help but feel a little giddy and a little gratified, like maybe the same part of Jonathan’s subconscious that was compelling him to apply for grants in Australia was now compelling him to come home. Because she still loved the man he had been when he still said things like, “I’m bursting with love for you,” and she was still willing to see if he could become that man again.
Standing at the door, he had the haggard look of an insomniac, the dead but shifting stare of a man desperate for sleep but repeatedly yanked back from oblivion by adrenaline jolts and nervous energy. He was wearing someone else’s clothes, some kind of uniform shirt, and she could smell his dried sweat. He looked so strange, other to himself, compounded by the fact that he shouldn’t have been there at all; he should have been in the warm sea breezes of Australia wearing board shorts and a rash guard and a wide-brim hat to keep off the sun. He should be his pale, sunscreen-splattered self, with knobby knees and leg hair sprouting from the tops of his socks in his goofy scientist way and not ringing the doorbell on their front porch like a traveling salesman with only a suitcase to his name.
“You came back?” she asked, and in that moment, at least, the whole stupid great gate of her heart swung open wide for the search hounds of love.
After he came inside and told her his story, which she did not fully accept—surely this situation was not unprecedented and unique, surely there were protocols to follow, surely he was not being hunted as they spoke by mafia-esque thugs at the behest of a shadowy multinational corporate juggernaut in a conspiracy to commit murder for the sake of covering up criminal negligence at a Miami teleport; there were some assumptions being made, some outlandish ideas metastasizing in a climate of fear, her skepticism suggested to her—she proceeded to name her emotions, a task she often assigned to her students when they struggled to process their feelings. Confused and scared at what had happened, that her husband or this man who appeared to her to be her husband and whom she loved as if he were her husband might be in danger. Irritated that she wanted to use this grant in Australia to extricate herself from him and guilty that this man at her door needed her when she was preparing to leave him. Skeptical not of the truth of his story, but of this notion of imminent and portending doom. Sad that it took defying death and the near total loss of his life as an independent and autonomous person for her husband to come crawling back to her. Guilt because once she’d realized why he’d returned, once she’d realized what he was asking of her, all that faith and trust and hope and love melted away, even as she understood in his mind that he thought she could save him.
As an elementary school teacher, second grade, Danielle, whose students still knew her as Ms. Dessen, was used to a certain presumed incompetence, a socially acceptable conversational pathway for those around her to demean and disrespect her as a professional. Made worse by her doctorate of biology husband—not by him, never by him or she wouldn’t have married him, but by, for example, dinner guests or extended family, anytime they had to sit side-by-side and speak about themselves to others—in comparison. She had learned to navigate this condescension with resentment and anger, and with an active inner imaginary, such as her daydream the day before Jonathan left. They were diving together in the rough and shallow waters of an off-shore reef and became separated by the current. He was swimming too far ahead, not looking back, leaving her behind. She tried to call him but he didn’t respond. He was a dark shadow in the blue water and suddenly her oxygen was running out and as she struggled for air, she felt her body and diving gear begin to morph: her tank splitting into tentacles, her hood distending, her mouthpiece narrowing into a beak, suckers prickling her skin. With something like objective horror but personal joy, she realized she was transforming into an octopus, that grasping, curious, thinking, unknowable, unfathomable creature, a creature with an intelligence beyond human comprehension, with eyes like black waters cascading down the cliff face of the continental shelf. As soon as the transformation was complete, her husband turned and swam towards her, to study her, not realizing that just a moment before she had been his wife, but as he swam the heat and the acid and the dissolved chemicals and plastic particles and heavy metals in the water began to blister her skin and she watched herself disintegrate as her husband fumbled to save her in his ungainly diver’s gloves.
So of course she knew she would not take him back, and wondered if her skepticism was actually rationalization, but that was academic for her; for her, the pressing question was how she would tell him.
In the small hours of the morning, she heard John rummaging in the kitchen, heard the sounds of his slippers scuffling over the tile, cabinets opening and closing, a mug chinking on the granite countertop, the aborted whistle of the kettle as he yanked it off the heat. She got out of bed, pulled on a shirt, and went out to meet him.
“I’m sorry, did I wake you? I couldn’t sleep,” he said.
“I wasn’t sleeping either.”
He gave her his tea and set about making a new mug for himself.
“I keep thinking about the strangest thing,” he said. “Have you ever read something or seen something in a movie and it sticks with you and then later you remember it as if it had actually happened to you?”
She nodded to show she was listening but didn’t interrupt.
“There was this book I read in college, when I was still an undergrad; it was called Chiaroscuro in Madrid. It was about this kid studying abroad in Madrid, obviously, and he takes a film class at the university and all they watch are old Hollywood classics: Humphrey Bogart and Carey Grant and Katherine Hepburn type stuff. I remember I read it because my roommate lent it to me. I’ve told you about him, right? He was a philosophy major and always reading and, I have to admit, I always found the titles very intriguing, which up until that point wasn’t something I had ever really thought about. Anyway, the book was apparently a big deal. It was the author’s first novel and won a bunch of awards. But the scene that stuck with me. So they’re on an airplane—and obviously I’ve been on an airplane, but little tourist flights, not like travel like they used to—from Philadelphia to Madrid, the narrator and his parents. They called it a red-eye, which means they flew overnight, and his parents are with him. They’re all going on vacation together to see him off. Two weeks in Madrid with his parents before his study abroad program starts. In the book, they land in Madrid and his parents check into their hotel and fall asleep—jet lag when there were still jets involved—and the narrator is left to wander Madrid alone. There’s an extended passage, then, of long hot days, heat and stone pavements and small glasses of beer in sidewalk cafes while his parents sleep in the hotel room’s air conditioning. He slides along the sidewalks because they’re so smooth from age and dust. I remember I felt desiccated; even turning the pages left my fingers dry. He flirts with mildly amused waitresses in slim black shirts tucked into their jeans and gold hoop earrings. They can tell he’s not old enough to drink in America, but he is old enough in Spain, and they smile at him with brown lips and long teeth, but none of them tell him when their shift ends or ask him to wait on the corner or take him by the hand and lead him into another life. So he spends his time squinting in the sun and reading yellowed paperbacks and he can’t stop thinking about the flight in. He had fallen asleep and woken up with a falling jolt as the plane began its descent into Madrid. The whole thing happened so quick: a twelve-hour flight condensed into the span of a few short minutes to him. It seemed as if, quite literally, he had fallen asleep in America and woken up in a foreign country. I remember in the book he kept saying that he felt “unmoored” and then would meta-comment on the pun like it was clever because of the Moors in Spain, I guess. So there he is, groggy, unwashed, and borderline incoherent, blinking his way through the brightness of Spain, and all he can think about is this horrible moment on the plane when he had woken up, or it felt like he had woken up, and he was hovering over his own body, watching himself sleep, and he couldn’t make himself move or wake up or protect himself in any way, all he could do was watch. Anyone could have come by and smothered him with a pillow and he wouldn’t have been able to pose the slightest defense. And then, a flight attendant does come by. She leans over him—is she adjusting his blanket? is she checking to see if he’s awake? he doesn’t know and can’t tell but she’s moving her hands over him—and there is the slightest disturbance of the air, like a change in pressure, and the flight attendant moves away, but the main character is still there, hovering over himself, and even though she moves away, he sees a disembodied face floating in the air. It’s her face, but distorted, grotesque and shimmering, like an oiled mask of imitation skin, and then it begins to descend until it floats down into his own sleeping face and sinks into his skin.
“When I think about those scenes, I’m on that plane. I know that flight attendant. It’s like the author saw something that happened to me and put it in his book. Rationally I know it didn’t happen, but the memory is so real. Even as I read it for the first time, I kept thinking, this has already happened, this character is me. I have memories that feel less real to me than this random passage in a book my roommate gave me. And the only thing I can think is that when I read this passage there’s something in it that causes me to literally derealize, it’s like a personal dissociation trigger for me. And then of course I can’t help but think that the character is derealizing in the scene, so am I just being emotionally affected by what I’m reading? Is the author just effectively creating the same emotion in the reader that the character is experiencing?
“But then there’s this other passage, later in the book, where the main character is at a party and he’s talking with a group of friends, telling them this story about the flight attendant and trying to explain this sensation he gets on planes—although he gets this feeling too when he wakes up in a stranger’s bed or comes to after a fever breaks—it’s a feeling of displacement, mind-body separation, and when it happens, his mind is still his, but his body feels strange and different and still the same but also new. But his friends can’t or won’t admit to experiencing anything similar, and instead they shoot him long stares like he’s starting to creep them out and make jokes about the flight attendant implanting a camera when she leaned over him. All except one of the people there, an acquaintance more than a friend, or technically a friend of a friend who starts to agree with him before she senses the mood shifting against him and stops herself while the rest of them make fun of him.
“I would swear to you that that was me, that I told that story once at a party. I remember the white leather couch, which was full of crumbs and kind of disgusting. I remember all of the lights were on and it was really bright, which was killing the mood of the party. I remember the girl who agreed with me; she had curly wheat-colored hair and her eyes were set very far apart, which made her look supernaturally intelligent, like she could sense auras or read minds.
“I don’t know how to explain it except to say that it is one of my most powerful memories and, as far as I can tell, all of the evidence says it never even happened, that it was just a book I read and somehow what I read got jumbled up in the memory storage in my brain.”
“You know,” she said, “I was planning to leave you, or him, or whoever, I don’t know now anymore. But I was planning to leave you before you got back from Australia. Or maybe give you an ultimatum, like we have to start trying for a child before the end of the summer or I’m leaving you. But who wants to give their husband an ultimatum like that? At that point, I might as well leave, because I’d be coercing you into it, and then I’d never be able to trust that you actually wanted kids, just that you wanted divorce even less, but at that point we’d might as well get divorced because the loss of trust would make it inevitable anyway. All of which is to say, you show up here asking me to take you in and, I want to know, I want you to tell me, I was going to leave you, so what am I supposed to do?”
“I love you,” he said. “This whole thing, this ordeal, it’s made me realize how much I want to be with you. I need you, I realize that now.”
He scrunched his nose up for a split-second then, a tell he had when he realized he had said something stupid and hoped the other person wouldn’t notice. It was endearing when the stakes weren’t quite so high, one of the reasons she loved him, because he so often caught his own mistakes.
“That’s just it, isn’t it? It took nearly dying. And now, now you need me. What’s the endgame here? If I choose you, then you’re the real Jonathan Slotter and the other one doesn’t count anymore?”
And she worried and she wondered: what if she had said too much? what if she had gone too far? just how desperate was this man and who had he become? what was he now capable of, after an ordeal like his? She watched him watching her and with a little shiver of terror she watched him read her mind, saw him reading her in the anger in his eyes, the tightening of his jaw.
John had few marketable skills outside the university—which, from its perspective, already had a Jonathan Slotter on its payroll, doing perfectly respectable field work in Queensland, and so saw little need for another marine biologist with identical skills—except for applied research in the corporate world, the type of profit motivated, environmentally agnostic industry he had spent a decade working against, and so that is exactly where he ended up. This suited both Jonathan and John just fine. The teleportation company, which owned Jonathan’s remains, which is to say the actually living but legally dead John, agreed to abide these outcomes in exchange for a rather draconian non-disclosure agreement that John had no legal standing to refuse and that Jonathan begrudgingly signed to muffle the blaring ethical sirens screaming in his head. Cognitive dissonance thus resolved, each party was freed of any obligations owed the others. Jonathan stayed in Brisbane for the duration of the grant, then its renewal, and eventually took a position at the University of Queensland. The teleportation company continued to incinerate human beings with legal impunity and with the full knowledge and countenance of the general public, albeit with one or two additional failsafes recommended by legal and the quality control teams to avoid the possibility of future lawsuits. And John took a position in the ocean research division of a multinational oil and energy company that happened to have, in a lab adjacent to his own on their Houston campus, a teleportation machine.
For legal scholars, the curious case was thus left unresolved, muzzled and buried like so many other cases under the corporate settlement machine. (Later jurisprudence would affirm that all byproducts of the teleportation process were sole property of the owner of the teleportation machine.) For psychiatrists though, the life of John Slotter took a textbook worthy turn.
Despite being primarily used for federal defense contracts, the teleportation machine on the Houston campus of John’s new employer required only minimal security clearance to access, clearance that John had for his job duties in his own lab. After all, at this time teleportation machines were increasingly regularly available in all major and most mid-sized cities, at well-endowed universities, virtually all military bases worldwide, in the warehouses of major shipping and consumer goods distribution firms, etc. And so it was fairly routine to find teleportation machines on the research campuses of large, multinational firms. In John’s case, this one happened to be used for research on molecular resequencing, which is the process of taking the raw molecular structure of one material, say wastewater runoff from plastic production in Nigeria, and remaking it as another, say hypoallergenic hand soap for sale in the European luxury skincare market. The machine itself was off grid, not linked to any other machines in the global teleportation network save one, its twin in another lab a few hundred yards away. And so, given their relative ubiquity and apparent harmlessness, no one in security foresaw the need for more than minimal deterrent efforts, and John was able to access the teleportation machine at his leisure, at night, after the other employees had gone home. There was the matter of the on-site security guard, who might have found it suspicious to see the lights on in the teleportation labs, but John solved that problem with a casual conversation.
“Allen,” he said, “just want you to know so you aren’t concerned: I’m doing some crossover work in the teleportation lab. They’re working with wastewater and want my marine biologist opinion on some of their protocols. So if you see the lights on late, it’s just me, burning the midnight oil.”
And, indeed, that team had asked him to weigh in on certain questions of water quality. His lie was concealed in truth.
The teleportation machine itself held a certain morbid fascination for John, like viewing his dead mother’s body at her wake. In some ways, he supposed it could be posited that this machine, or more precisely, one very much like it in the Miami teleport, was his mother. It was essentially a large chamber connected to a very powerful computer that scanned and analyzed, copied and printed. In lieu of toner, the machine used various protein solutions, hydrogels, and polymers. At a commercial teleport, only the chamber itself would have been visible, but at the lab, the entire machine was accessible for tinkering and customization. The machine did have an incineration function, but it had to be explicitly enabled, as most of the time the researchers wanted to save the original as an experimental control for later comparison and contrast. Security inside the labs was minimal; most of the company’s resources were spent on preventing intellectual property from leaking out of the labs, not on preventing human access to the labs. Security was primarily digital, not physical.
There were cameras outside the building, but not in, which meant John had to enter and exit in the same outfit he’d worn on the given day and had to ensure at least some plausible lights in the windows. It would have been easier to use night vision. His counterpart would have access only to the materials John provided, and to whatever he could repurpose in the lab, whereas John would have access to anything he could sneak past the cameras outside. But John considered night vision unsportsmanlike somehow, so he accepted the need for lights. He mapped and studied the layout of the destination lab, where his counterpart would print, memorized its emergency exits, timed the shortest routes. Between key card powered locks and jamming certain doors, John was able to create a playing arena of sorts without immediate exits or phones or computers that his counterpart could access. He could have delayed send on the print, walked over to the other building, and been present when his counterpart opened the chamber door, but the idea bothered John to the point of offense. The rules of the game created a semblance of fairness, not perfect balance, but a degree of fairness was important to John. He had played a version of the game after all, when he escaped from the incineration room.
The first night, as he waited for the custodians, which he had surveilled for several weeks in preparation, to finish their shifts, he took a long walk around the campus, following the connecting sidewalks and jogging trails through the humid dark. There had been a certain calm and beauty to those surveillant nights that John had come to savor. He enjoyed his little reconnaissance walks, his shadowy strolls, observing the habits of the campus after hours: the comings and goings of security officers, the lit and unlit paths, the scheduled rotation of custodians. The campus took on a different feel at night, after the urgent demands of the workday were done, a sort of loosening of the tie. He loved to watch the leaves of the magnolia trees, to try to pick out their color from the backdrop of the sky. He would hold his breath and listen for the soft machine hum that permeated the campus when the noises of the people had gone. The office lights that seemed so harsh during the day somehow became warm and buttery at night, and the hundreds of windows revealing hundreds of empty offices became department store displays, as if maybe this life were the good life after all, a life worthy of a storefront window, a life for which someone might press their face against the glass to see every thoughtful scenic detail and wish, oh wish, that they could buy.
He wished the feeling of those nights could sink into him, but his skin acted as a repellent force, the same way it acted in the water, floating above a coral reef on a warm, wave-lulling day. He could immerse himself for hours, completely disconnected from the outside world, from the passage of time, from everything except his presence in the natural world, but as soon as he slapped his snorkeling fins on land, water dripping from his skin, the tranquility fled him, and the demands of phones and unread emails and bank statements and department meetings beamed back into his brain, as if all the satellites that had been indifferently orbiting above him in space suddenly shifted in their dish’s gaze, the great blue spans of their solar arrays turning towards him like giant birds of prey. He could move through these quiet places—scented nights, mirror-flat water, university libraries, museums at closing time—but as soon as he left them, the feeling would be gone, and he would be left only with whatever other space was now around him and the disquiet in his brain.
The first night, however, the first game night, the light cones from the lampposts looked like tractor beams from the hovering spaceships of a tiny alien race bored to tears with what they’d found. As he walked, he thought about water, specifically the warm calm waters off the coast of his new home that seemed completely devoid of life. He knew from his former life that, technically, biodiversity in the Gulf of Mexico was actually quite high, although, like just about everywhere on earth, it had seen recent, significant declines. But the feeling he had, visiting those beaches, with their muddy brown water and muddy brown sand, was overwhelmingly the feeling of death. An ocean without plants or animals: just sand and salt and wind and waves. He had felt that way before, after bleaching events, and it scared him. He had felt as useful as a doctor in a cemetery.
When the custodians had finished and he had had his fill of reminiscing, he went to the destination lab to prepare the space. He removed a couple of phone lines, locked supply closets, and barred the appropriate doors. There were still office supplies and windows and any manner of creative self-defense that his counterpart might use, but John was fairly certain he would have the upper hand. Then he returned to his office, where he holstered his pistol, hidden beneath his blazer, and bundled the rest of his materials—extra ammunition, a silencer, a mirror to peer around corners, a handheld thermal imager to detect body heat—into his laptop bag. He didn’t know what else to bring or do; he had prepared as best he knew how. With the exception of the equipment, preparation had felt pointless. Any knowledge or skills he gained, any physical training he undertook, would be shared equally by his counterpart. So he had focused on learning the custodial schedule and learning how to shoot a gun.
In the origin lab, John checked and double-checked the teleportation machine. The disposal function was off. He felt reasonably calm, but still, the terror of falling down the disposal chute in the teleport in Miami rose up like some black-cloaked angel of death in the back of his brain. Then he began to undress, laying his clothes on a waiting bench well away from the machine. He would not give his counterpart that advantage. He set a twenty second delay, enough time to start the machine from the control panel, then step into the transmission chamber. One deep breath. No countdown, no ritual, no prayer. The anticipation was the worst part, borderline nauseating, and he wished he had set the timer for fifteen seconds instead. When the transmission was complete, he dressed, grabbed his bag, and ran. He wanted time to his advantage on that first night of the game.
What John found when he entered the destination lab was not tripwire and booby traps, not upturned tables and office furniture stacked into defensive fortifications, not staplers for missiles and scissors broken into knives, not a man defiant in death or even really a man at all, standing with shoulders back to accept the burden of his fate. What John found instead when he entered the teleportation room was himself, lying fetal and naked on the floor, the robe he’d left for his counterpart still folded on the operator’s desk. He stood over himself—his limber, white, mole-flecked body—not with disgust or anger, as he’d somehow expected, but with something like gratitude, gratitude to this man for lying lamb-like at his feet, gratitude for the life he’d managed to wrench from the byways of death, a life he would have never wished upon anyone and that he did not wish to live, but in that moment he was grateful for it anyway. He felt melancholy too, in the form of a deep and tender world-weariness, expansive in scope, that seemed to fill the air in the room with a dense humidity. And nostalgia, finally, a kind of future-oriented nostalgia, in which he saw his life from the vantage point of his own senescence and felt the loss of what had not yet even become.
In the end, he killed himself quietly, with a knife rather than a gun. He drew the blade down each forearm after laying his counterpart on a camping tarp with an old sweater to catch the blood. They didn’t even speak. It was surprisingly touching, this intimacy, when he had expected rage and fury and fight, and he realized that in many ways he was a stranger to himself. It reminded him most of when his parents had called him home from college to put down his childhood dog: the long drive where the tall pine trees on either side of the highway hid the exits and towns and tunneled the road inescapably towards death; the hours that went by both fast and slow of sitting by her side, gently massaging the soft fur at the base of her ear as she labored to breathe; the cold silence in the veterinarian’s office as the needle went in and the horror of her fear, because her intelligence never left her, not even at the end, and because she knew what was happening to her and why and why and why.
When his counterpart’s bleeding was done, he wrapped the body for transport, loaded it onto a flatbed dolly, and wheeled himself out to the parking lot.
Over the next several years, he killed himself over three dozen times. There was no uncertain awe at the power to create himself, to see himself objectively, from the outside. Each night was a new out of body experience, a chance to measure and evaluate himself, but most important, to know himself, to affirm his agency as a subject within the biopolitical order in the crudest, most literal terms: in the power to grant life and in the power to make death. For the psychologists, this twinned desire, to both make and unmake himself, this simultaneous life and death drive, was the root of and explanation for his condition. But there was more to John’s desire. There was alienation from himself and others, loneliness, and deep, unfulfilled emotional need. John often killed himself, but each night was not like the first. Sometimes they were, but sometimes John and his counterpart spoke for a little while. Sometimes they hid and when they were found they asked for time. Each time, it seemed, they wanted to remember for just a few minutes more. They wanted more time. And he knew what they were thinking of, of what he himself was thinking of. And the chance to think those things, to invoke those feelings and come back to them again and again, as much as all the rest, drove his desire. They were thinking together: of snorkeling when they were a child and seeing sea turtles and manta rays underwater; of meeting Danielle at a bowling alley, their two separate friend groups assigned to adjacent lanes, how they both came in last amongst their friends and so their friends decided for them that the losers should play each other, and how they both abandoned their friend groups to go to dinner together for what became an impromptu first date; of when her mother called him even though they were still only dating to tell him she had been in a car accident and was being transported to the hospital and how he rushed all the way there to find her sitting up with a broken collarbone, her neck in a brace and her arm in a sling and her face smiling stupidly and painfully as she tried to eat an enormous bowl of chocolate peanut butter ice cream; of how the wind blew on their wedding day and tore the curtains of their canopy into the sea foam on the shore. They were thinking of memories of love and water, of a sunlit ocean and the softness of her hair, her neck, her inner thighs. None of them made any serious effort to escape or fight. They just wanted a few moments to think of love before they died. One told him, from the closet he was barricaded in, that he had been, not exactly happy, but calm during the waiting, the moments had been tranquil, until he had arrived. And even though he appreciated that John was giving him more time, the moment was ruined, he couldn’t remember properly anymore. He would have preferred to have been snuck up on, struck from behind. That it was impossible to lose himself in memory with the executioner standing by.
John was caught, in the end, by a change in the custodial scheduling. Two custodians quit in the same week, the company was having a hard time filling the roles, and so modified the schedule temporarily and without notice to the other staff, because what facilities director working at a multinational oil and energy company would ever think that anyone but the custodians themselves might care. One of the remaining custodians found John’s counterpart naked on the floor. Security pulled the tapes while John was detained. Video footage was only saved for six weeks, but it was enough, and John entered state custody. Under subpoena, John’s non-disclosure agreement lost its force, and the ensuing investigation became a media sensation. John watched his own media coverage from jail; it wasn’t hard to access; everyone wanted to put that channel on. The media loved every morsel and crumb of the spectacle that they themselves created. More than one network worked up an image of John duplicated into a John army. They liked to have that image fill the screen, then zoom out to show the army spreading into infinity. They wanted to make him out as both a mass murderer and a megalomaniac who might clone himself to take over the world, even though the killing his clones part seemed to logically contradict the clone army part. But what really, irrationally, bothered John about the clone army bit was the zoom out to show the army growing: the sequence was computer animated, so there was no camera to zoom in or out in the first place. Why animate the action of a camera that didn’t exist? John couldn’t get over it and didn’t want to: micro-focusing on these trivial details helped keep the panic at bay. As he watched the so-called “talking heads,” he liked to imagine their heads literally lifting off from their bodies like little spaceships and flying around the television screen while their now headless torsos sagged in their seats. They trotted out psychiatrists and legal experts and politicians that offered shallow, repetitive, meaningless analysis speculating on his mental state and invariably either pleaded insanity on his behalf or, blood on their teeth, called the governor to charge up the electric chair.
Several law firms, sensing notoriety, approached John about representation. Some wanted to argue that since he didn’t exist as a legal entity, he couldn’t be subject to the juridical power of the state. Others wanted to argue that his counterparts were not human but property, or perhaps more accurately, human property, which is to say his human property, and that just like any teleportation company, he was therefore entitled to dispose of that human property as he wished. The latter defense appealed to him more than the former, which called into question, at a fundamental and existential level, his personhood. He was much more amenable to calling into question the personhood of the counterparts he had killed. Both sets of lawyers assured him that once he was cleared of wrongdoing, his prior don’t-ask-don’t-tell agreement with Jonathan and the teleportation company would be reinstated, but John doubted that the teleportation company, in particular, would be unconcerned with the legal precedents at stake. In point of fact, one of their lawyers contacted him, but he left the call unreturned, although he did save the voicemail in the event he might need it.
The state prosecutors enjoyed the attention John’s case brought to their careers, and between conference calls and boardroom meetings about possible candidacies for office that they might pursue after the guilty verdict had been delivered, they spent their time encouraging the death penalty talk, floating phrases like “heinous crimes” and “the sacrifices of the victims and their families,” even though the victims had no families, as John had no family, as John was the victim, as the victims were John. As much as John wanted to argue with the bureaucracy of angels that guard the gates of heaven from their heavy oak desks that his game in the teleportation room was a victimless crime, his own escape and continued existence was the strongest possible refutation. Still, John wanted to put a point on it. Whereas most criminals committed a crime resulting in victims, he had created his victims in order that there might be a crime. He had reversed cause and effect, and wanted to argue that therefore guilt could not follow. Not to mention that they were all copies of copies of copies: how many times had any of them, all of them, teleported for business or leisure, to leave their originals burning just beneath their feet? How many times had they incinerated their children en route to a family vacation? He was the original, he wanted to scream, he had come first, and shouldn’t that mean something; when he survived, shouldn’t his copy’s life have reverted to him. But wisely John kept silent on these finer philosophical musings. Instead, he denied all of them what they really wanted. He pleaded guilty without a trial. Immense potential corporate media profits were lost, the defense lawyers and state prosecutors were left without their career-defining case, and the death penalty, that little daydream for the bloodthirsty masses, lost its traction. They tried to build up the sentencing—would the judge surprise them with an execution? would John fly into a murderous fit of rage?—but the drama had been lost, and in a dim courtroom with windows fogged from rain, a judge sentenced John to one hundred and fifty years—fifty years for each recorded homicide—of which sixty years must be served before the option for parole, lowered his gavel, and took his mid-morning break.
Over the next five years, John was the subject of one movie, several documentaries, and a litany of psychiatric publications, including several doctoral dissertations that later became books. In each case, the angle was clear: John wanted to kill and, to some extent, he also wanted to be killed, to commit the act of suicide without the consequence. He wanted to witness, as an out of body experience, his own death. And these explanations satisfied the discerning public. His case was not a case about power and powerlessness within a brutal social order. His case was a case about madness, as all such cases were in the late twenty-first century, because madness and aberration are curiosities and not dissent.
John did grow accustomed to prison, after a while. He learned to think of the clanging on the ward as the moving steel of a submarine, of the noise around him as the many bodies of sailors tightly packed beneath the immense pressure of the ocean. He found solace in the prison library and in the quiet of the front office where he did simple clerical work and filing for the prison administrators. He even wrote to Jonathan, although he did not receive a response. He had plenty of time to remember in prison, and, when he was done remembering, he worked a nylon string loose from a laundry bag, wrapped it around a bedpost, and killed the only John he still could: himself.
Michael John Haskins holds an MFA. in fiction from Oklahoma State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Fat City Review, and elsewhere.