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Loopholes in Light

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times-bestselling Australian author of over forty novels and one hundred and twenty short stories for adults, young adults, and children. His short stories have been gathered into six collections, including Magic Dirt: The Best of Sean Williams, which won the 2008 Aurealis Award for Best Collection. As well as his original fiction, he has contributed to shared universes such as Star Wars and Doctor Who and collaborated with other writers. His latest novel is Have Sword, Will Travel, the first in a new middle-grade fantasy series with Garth Nix. He currently lives in Dublin.

"Hello, Andre. How nice to see you again. I knew I would, one day."
"I... can't say the feeling is mutual, Doctor Pedersen. It's amazing you're still alive!"
"Not a day goes by I don't thank the miracle that is modern science. But miracles can be misused... and so here we are. I'm sure you are aware that the law has not changed--"
"I am indeed. D-mat cannot be used for the purpose of suicide, because matter transmitters are not death machines--although of course they are, no matter what the state says. They strip everyone who uses them back to their component atoms, killing them in the process. To deny oblivion to those who desire it is--"
"A mercy, not a cruelty. I know you disagree, Andre."
"Of course I do. I wish to die just as dearly as other people wish to visit Mount Everest or the moon. Their wishes are granted. Why not mine?"
"Because you lack the clinical criteria for legal euthanasia--unless you now claim to be depressed, terminally ill, or infirm...?"
"You can see in my file that I'm none of those things. You can tell by looking at me."
"Yet you tried again, knowing that you would end up here, in the Recovery Room, with me or someone like me?"
"Being counseled as I have been counseled many times before? Yes, I did."
"Why, Andre?"
"Because this time is different. This time... I came to say goodbye."
"Don't tell me you have changed your mind!"
"That will never happen, Doctor Pedersen. On the contrary, I will change your mind."
"Ah, this is why you smile. Proceed, then. If you have spent the last four decades devising an argument, you have my full attention."
"I done nothing of the sort. My plan was formed when last we met. You suggested I take up tourism instead of dying. Do you remember?"
"My memory... is not what it used to be, but yes, I saw that remark in your files while awaiting completion of the Recovery process."
"Well, I took your advice to heart. I did travel. Around the world first, then across the solar system--and what a fascinating place that turned out to be. Almost the resolve to end my life fled, but I remain as certain as ever that continuing my existence is futile. To commit suicide via d-mat is my wish, once the state no longer stands in my way."
"I fear, Andre, that the state will never accede to your fetishistic wish--"
"But it must, and so must you. You see, I didn't just travel across the solar system to visit the planets--Jupiter in her ribbons and Saturn's bejeweled hat! I extended my journey far beyond the pool of light surrounding our sun, to the Plutonians, to the comets, to the edge of utter darkness itself. Once I stood on a rock that was closer to a neighboring sun than it is to our own, feeling the glorious crunch of eons-old air-ice under my insulated boots, and... Oh, I must stop lest I give you false hope! Amid all this beautiful strangeness and wonder, how could I not feel anything but jaded, and more certain than ever that my final wish will be attained, today."
"Travel may have broadened your mind, but I fail to see how it will alter mine."
"Consider, good doctor, that a person's existence is measured in moments. An hour here, a year there, all adding up to a lifetime. What happens when the flow of these moments is interrupted? We call this death: the measurement is complete; the addition comes to a full stop.
"Yet if the flow is restored... via d-mat say... then a miracle occurs! Life is restored, the count continues once more. The moments of death between life and life renewed are... inconvenient... and ignored.
"Imagine what happens as one travels to the stars via d-mat. When the body is torn asunder to release its precious data, data that is captured, frozen, and stored, this precious cargo is encoded bit by bit into a beam of twisted laser light, which fires outward into space at a precisely defined speed--the speed of light itself. There a person remains, unchanging, unliving... by any practical definition, dead.
"That packet of data might travel many years before reaching the receiver and being returned to matter. Years of death-debt, which a few days of sight-seeing cannot counterbalance."
"That is one way of--"
"Let me finish my spiel, Doctor Pedersen. I have rehearsed many times! What happens when the sum of one's living days is outnumbered by those spent trapped in d-mat's deadly thrall? How can one possibly be considered alive when for most of one's existence one has been precisely the opposite?
"If you do the math, Doctor, you will find that, thanks to my interstellar adventures, I have now passed that critical juncture. I'm now more dead than alive, historically speaking, and you cannot therefore, in good faith, deny me the wish to return to my proper state. One of nonexistence, in the eyes of all but the most pedantic."
"Ah, but the state is pedantic, Andre! This is a detail you appear to have overlooked in your ruminations: the fundamental difference between someone who has been scanned and stored and someone who has been scanned and erased. The former remains living by every legal definition; the latter has died, either by their own hand or by someone else's. Whether someone has been stored for the majority of the time since their birth is irrelevant. They have been stored. That is the critical thing."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Doctor Pedersen."
"You are?"
"Would you care to explain why?"
"Can you not guess? I do not ask to be erased, but to be returned to nonexistence, a state that only I, the pedant in this scenario, might care to distinguish from true death."
"I begin to see now... Yes... Let me say, Andre, how much I admire your dedication--no, that is too mild a word. To have pursued this goal for so many years, without pause or distraction--"
"Don't credit me with too much. For me it has been but a matter of weeks."
"Regardless, to fling yourself with such will into an unknowable future... You have risen vastly in my regard. It has been such a pleasure conversing with you."
"So you will grant me my heart's desire?"
"Yes. The state cannot stop you from traveling. May I ask where you intend to go?"
"The Andromeda galaxy. The journey of my data will take two and half million years."
"And naturally you do not expect a receiver to overtake you, in which case your signal, stored in the very fabric of the universe, would overshoot and vanish into the void forever... A gamble, then, and a bold one. I eagerly await the result."
"You? Doctor Pedersen, as well-preserved as you are, surely you cannot expect to live long enough to find out!"
"I can be sure of it--although some would quibble over the definition of what it means to live. My physical body died many years ago, but my d-mat pattern is reactivated whenever I am needed in the Recovery Room. Isn't that remarkable, how our destinies have converged?"
"Please, don't tell me--"
"Yes, Andre, when humanity devises a way to surpass that twisted light beam containing your data, I will be there to greet you in Andromeda, all those years hence. And I for one eagerly await our conversation."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 11th, 2018

Author Comments

I am not a lawyer, but had I been born a hundred years later I might have been. The legal ramifications of matter transmitters fascinate me, and have done all the way back to the earliest days of my career. Machines that can copy or delete people will vex our courts, just like any new technologies, only more so, I think. This is a machine that will challenge the very nature of human existence, and non-existence, too.

"Loopholes in Light" is part of my Twinmaker universe, which comprises one novel, one trilogy, a TV series in development, and over forty short stories, including previous Daily SF contribution, "Tall Tales About Today My Great-great-granddaughter Will Tell." For more information, please visit: twinmakerbooks.com.

- Sean Williams
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