It's twenty minutes since the duplicator's last glitch, so I ask one of the guards outside to fetch me lunch, hoping that for once I might be able to eat it uninterrupted by urgent repair work. "Yes, Miss Ruiz," he says as he salutes. I don't have a rank or a uniform — just a lab coat — but they still salute me. At first I found it endearing; now it just reminds me how much I miss Caltech, where nobody ever salutes anyone.
While I wait for my meal, I watch the crawlers assemble the body of Abu Hameed. This copy — the ninth — is nearly finished. Each copy has appeared quicker than the last: I've improved the duplicator's speed, at the price of needing more operator oversight.
The workbench is electroplated with gold, a non-reactive metal that shines under the lab's fluorescent lights. Abu Hameed's naked body lies directly on the bench, but it's not uncomfortable for him because he isn't alive yet. And no-one cares about his comfort anyway, not since he killed ten thousand people in the Atrocity.
The SF genre has been described as an ongoing conversation. An author writes a story about a particular idea, and then another writer responds with a story that extends the idea, or takes it in a different direction, or reverses it completely. It's like saying "Yes, and..." or "Yes, but..." or even "No, not at all!" In turn, the new story may evoke its own responses. Sometimes an idea is used in so many stories that it's like a noisy conversation at a party where everyone is having their say, almost talking across each other, and the discussion continues long after the earlier participants have left the room.
The concept of matter duplication is a well-worn trope in SF. It has its own entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and there are certainly many more usages of the trope than are listed in that article.
All this preamble is simply to say that the SF premise of my story "After the Atrocity" is not remotely original. It's matter duplication, applied to people — i.e. making copies of someone.
So why did I write another story about a theme that has already been rehashed plenty of times? The short answer is that I wanted to address contemporary circumstances: it's a topical story. But although that's true, it's not the whole truth. I didn't think to myself, "How best can I write about terrorism and anti-terrorism? I know: matter duplication!"
It was actually the other way around. I read a story in which a person was duplicated, and the tale struck me as rather anodyne. I thought to myself, "That's all very well, but if this technology really existed, what would it actually be used for? If it had just been invented, who would be the first people to use it?" This led me to consider the contemporary issues of terrorism and anti-terrorist techniques.
I'm reluctant to name the specific story that inspired this chain of thought, in case it looks as though I'm criticising it. I don't regard it as a criticism to say that a particular invention — such as a matter duplicator — would have ramifications with contemporary relevance. However, it's unfair to single out a specific story, when other stories with a similar (and widely used) premise could equally have provoked the same reaction.
Indeed, one reason that certain science-fictional tropes are so interesting, and recur so often in different stories, is precisely because they have so many ramifications, such that no single story — not even my own! — could possibly be the last word. The conversation continues.
Finally, I should note that in one respect, my story has become a hostage to fortune. It contains the line "I bet the President didn't authorise..." I wrote the story before Donald Trump ran for president, in a bygone era when it felt as though there was a rulebook for society and for civilised conduct. Now, who knows what President Trump might authorise?