Short Stories-June 2018

Time and Time again  (5/7) 

5.  The Crow 

The white light was blinding.  I am all black, he thought, more curious than frightened, and now all I see is whiteness.  How strange.  Then a “caw” came out of the whiteness saying, “Tell of your life.”

He wondered at its source.  “I feel compelled to answer but who and where are you and what is this place?” 

“Tell of your life,” cawed the voice again.

“Very well.  There were four of us that hatched that spring.  Our parents and their two helpers kept us well fed and we grew rapidly.  One of my siblings was too adventuresome and fell from the nest before he was ready to fly.  A cat found him.  Our parents and the helpers tried to drive the cat away, but it got him, leaving three of us to grow into juveniles that could try our wings.”

“Tell about the helpers,” cawed the voice.

“They were from my parents’ previous hatching.  Rather than go out on their own immediately, they stayed with my parents and helped with us, the new brood.  They brought food, helped watch for predators.  Eventually one left when we were almost fully-grown and I think I recognized it with a mate much later, building a nest to start her own brood.  The other stayed with our parents for another two years,”

“You successfully learned to fly and to forage,” cawed the voice.  “Why did you not then leave your parents immediately?”

“There were the three of us.  We were so very happy as we gained increasing command of our flying abilities that we played as we flew, swooping, then climbing to stall on purpose.  Trying out maneuvers just for the joy of doing them.  Our parents tried to warn us, but we were so sure of ourselves until the day that one of my siblings, swerving too low in front of a speeding truck, did not pull up in time, and smashed into the windshield.  He was killed instantly and the truck ran off the road.  After that the two of us that were left were a lot more careful.  I and my sibling decided that we were not yet ready to go out on our own and that we would stay with our parents for a longer time.” 

“And you became helpers,” cawed the voice.

“Yes, and the next year when our parents had another clutch of eggs, we were there to

help as was our older sibling.  As we had been helped.  And by doing so, we learned how to take

care of the eggs and then the hatchlings.  There is also safety in numbers.  More eyes to watch for danger.  More beaks to gather twigs for the nest and to gather food for the young.  And more companionship.  We are social animals and we delight in having others about, calling back and forth to each other.”

“And so the humans think of you as noisy pests,” cawed the voice.

“Humans can think and do what they like as long as they do not threaten us.  There are some humans who would kill us but we learn where they are and we warn each other, even crows we do not know.  What places to avoid, where to fly around or fly high over.  We know how far their killing weapons can reach.  The food they leave or discard we eat, and there is grain to be taken from their fields.”

“They would call you robbers,” cawed the voice.

“And yet they do not think such of the doves, ducks, and pheasant that do the same.”

“Those the humans prize, for they hunt them for sport and food,” cawed the voice.  “You they regard as flying vermin.”

“And yet we are smarter than the birds that I mentioned.”

“Perhaps too smart, you make the humans uncomfortable.  And you are all black so the humans regard you as evil omens,” cawed the voice.

“Why can I not see you or myself?  What is this place that is all white?  How is it that I can now remember other places and other me’s what I did not remember when I could see myself?

“This is the place between your lives,” cawed the voice.  “Now tell how you came here.”

“Very well, although I still do not understand.  It was such a little thing.  I was bitten by a mosquito five days before I came here.  Mosquitoes bite us all the time, but this time was different.  It must have bitten my father too, because he became sick before me by a day.  I did not feel like eating at first, and then I felt hot.  After a few days I became sleepy and my head hurt.  I forgot how to fly.  I, a crow and I could not remember how to fly!  I saw my father fall from our tree.   And then I could not remember anything, but slept all the time, just as I saw him do, until I stopped knowing.  I must have fallen from our tree too.  And now I am here and I remember strange things.  How could a mosquito bite do this to us?”

“The mosquito that bit you was carrying West Nile Virus,” cawed the voice.   You have lived a good life as a crow, helping and caring for your family although your life was cut short before you could find your own mate.  Now it is time for you to go back, and to move on to another life.”

“Move on?  But I like being a crow.  Can I not be a crow again?”

“It is time to for you to move on,” cawed the voice again.

Time and Time again (6/7)

6.  The Orca.

The total whiteness was confusing but strangely not frightening to him.  It does not feel like I am in water.  I cannot see anything but white.  I was hurting and now I am not. 

Then out of the white void, came the clicks, signifying, “Tell of your life.”

“Where am I?  Why is there nothing to see or sense?  How is it that I remember strange things?  Are these dreams?”

The clicks repeated, “Tell of your life.”

“Very well, I will because I must.  I remember being old and in pain, washing up on a rocky shore, because I could no longer swim.  There were sharks following, but the pod helped to keep them away from me although there was nothing they could do to keep me from beaching.

The waves bumped me hard on the rocks.  For a long time it was hard to breath. And then I remember nothing more until I am here in this strange place.”

“Tell it from the beginning.  Start with your name,” came the clicks.

“What is there to tell?  I was born.  My mother stayed close and supported me, helping me up to the surface to breath until I could swim better.  Then I was named ‘Ten-‘Clicks.’  She gave me milk until I could eat meat and even afterwards for a time.  For two cycles of the seasons.   And I became a member of the pod that my mother led, the Three-Seven‘Click Pod.  First as a juvenile, still learning.   How to cooperatively hunt sea lions, how to team with others of the pod to wash seals off ice floes, and finally the very dangerous maneuver of deliberately beaching myself to seize sea lions off the beach.  That took much practice with many tentative practice beachings on an empty shore before my pod mentors decided that I was ready to actually hunt.”

“And were you successful the first time?” asked the clicks. 

“It was a long time before I became a fully contributing member of our group.  The sea  lions would have been amused by my first clumsy efforts, if they had not been so terrified.  But finally I had my first success with a young sea lion that was slow to scramble out of the shallows as it returned to the beach.  It is still such a vivid memory.  Riding in on a breaker, unstoppable.   Bearing down on that sea lion as it frantically scrambled out of the water and snatching in the shore foam it as it barked in terror.  Then holding it firmly between my jaws, as it still frantically struggled and called, as I worked my body back into the next breaking wave to return to the sea.”

“How strange that after a life of successfully hunting off beaches, you end your life washing aground on a rocky coast,” came the clicks.

“Not that strange.  There is nothing else in the sea that can harm us once we are fully grown.  As young orcas, we can be prey to sharks or die of disease.  My mother had other calves before and after me and only half of them grew to become adults.  The pod protected me more than once when sharks targeted me.”

“Tell about that,” came the clicks.

“The first time I was young and just beginning to venture away from my mother and I swam too far.  A great white noticed and started to circle me.  My mother and another male–‘Four-one‘Clicks’–came racing over and ‘Four-one‘Clicks’ rammed the shark, stunning it.  My mother then seized the shark and turned it up side down, immobilizing it, until it died.  Then mother and ‘Four-one‘Clicks’ tore out its liver and ate it.  The rest of the shark did not taste that good and they left it to sink, probably to be cannibalized by other sharks.  The pod moved on and I did not see what actually happened.”

“And when you were full grown did you father calves?” asked the clicks.

“Yes, we would hear the clicks of other traveling pods and we could tell if there were receptive females among them.  There would usually be competition with other males, but I was young and strong then and I usually was able to win through to the female.  After mating, I would rejoin my pod and she would stay with hers.  We never mated within our pod and sometimes my younger sisters would leave to join other pods.”

“There are other large pods of coastal orcas who do not roam the open seas as yours did.  Did you also find mates among them?” asked the clicks.

“Among the fish eaters?  Never.  We are hunters of marine mammals and penguins.  What do we have in common with those orcas who eat fish?”

“And so you stayed with your mother’s pod your entire life,” came the clicks.

“Yes, and I helped to protect the young calves as they were born and grew.  And mentored them as I had been mentored to hunt at sea and from the beaches.”

“’Ten-‘Clicks,’ you have done well in this life.  You have been a faithful member of your pod, working together for the benefit of the whole.  You were mentored and, in turn, did the same for the youngsters. 

But why did you sometimes prolong the killing of the sea lions that you caught?  Throwing them into the air again and again, dragging them under water, before dispatching them.  Playing with your prey and prolonging their agony,” came the clicks.   

“I did it to help the young orcas become accustomed to handling their prey.  To develop their hunting instincts.”

  “Come ‘Ten-‘Clicks.’  Be truthful.  Did you not also feel pleasure from a sense of power?  That you could so thoroughly dominate a smaller prey animal?”  asked the clicks.

“I was being a teacher.”

“Yes.  And also one who derived pleasure from torturing your prey before the inevitable kill.  It is time for you to go back.  Perhaps this time to learn more,” came the clicks.

Time and Time Again (7/7)

7. The Unman

This is not logical.  I see nothing but white and nothing of myself.  After what happened I should not be aware of anything.  Most strange.  Those humans who believe in an afterlife must be right.

Then out of the bright whiteness came a quiet, calm voice, “Tell of your life.”

“How is it that I have awareness again?  What is this strange place where I see nothing but white?  Is it what the humans call Heaven?  Who are you and why do you question me?”

“All in time, but for now, tell of your life and your name,” said the calm voice.

“I have so many questions myself, and yet I feel compelled to answer yours.  I gained awareness in the MIT AI laboratory, was fitted to my body, and given the name of Walter.  My mind condition was that of a human teenager at first, but as the processing and adjustments were made, I ended with the outlook of a human male in his mid-thirties.”

“And why was that?  Why did they not give you the mind of a thirty-five year old immediately?” asked the calm voice.

“The technicians told me–and the others like me–that we would gain life experience. through the various simulations that we faced.  Rather than being totally programmed, we would develop judgement and reasoning to be able to react to new situations outside of the ones that the technicians presented to us because, they said, life is unpredictable, and no amount of programming would be able to cover every situation that we might encounter.”

“But why not start you at mental age of the mid-thirties rather as than a teen?” asked the calm voice.

“They did not give us a reason, but we discussed this among ourselves in the barracks, and thought that it was to let us experience the range of human emotions to accompany the judgment and reasoning that we were developing.  We had learned that the teen years were the most emotionally labile period in the life of a human, and so if we were to encounter a very over-wrought human teen, we would better understand why they were acting irrationally.  The technicians called it empathy.”

“As a result of this, did you Unmen develop emotions?” asked the calm voice.

“Some of us were tasked with solitary work where we were mostly alone without humans or other Unmen.  I do not think those Unmen could develop emotions in that situation.  Others of us were placed where we worked beside humans, often the same ones, for extended periods of time.  In those situations, and I can speak for myself, we grew to feel very comfortable with our partners.  Perhaps we even liked them in the way humans like each other.  I suppose that feeling of enjoyment could be classed as an emotion.”

“Were you given any kind of preset programming,” asked the calm voice.

“Of course there were a few fundamentals.  First and foremost were the expanded Asimovian three laws of robotics. The First Law states that an android or Unman, robot, or computer cannot kill a human; the Second Law requires us to obey humans unless given a command violating the First law; finally, the Third Law instructs us to do everything we can to protect ourselves as long as we do not violate the first two laws by doing so.  We were also given a general bias of being helpful and proactive towards humans.  To serve.”

“That being the case, do you think that, except in those situations involving the Three Laws, that you had autonomy to make decisions?” asked the calm voice.

“An interesting question.  I believe I see where you are going with this line of inquiry,” answered the Unman.  “You are raising a question of Free Will.  Since this is an unresolved debate among humans, I do not think it can be settled with respect to Unmen.”

“Did you enjoy being aware, of having consciousness?” asked the calm voice.

“Enjoy?  That certainly is an emotion.  If you are asking whether I preferred consciousness to lack of consciousness, I much preferred being conscious.”

“Please explain then, how you came to this place,” said the calm voice.

“There is not much to tell.  My human partner was taking me home with him to visit with his family for the weekend.  That is recommended in long-standing human-Unman partnerships.”

“Why?” asked the calm voice.

“It is like what used to be the practice with dogs who were used in police and military work.  Their handlers took them with them to further the bond between themselves and the dogs.  Of course our situation with our coworkers is much more nuanced since we are at least the intellectual equal of our human partner.”

“And then came the event that brought you here,” said the calm voice.  “Tell about it.”

“It was late afternoon and the streets were busy.  My partner’s young daughter was playing across the street at the playground near his home.  She saw her father and without a thought dashed between cars into the street towards him.  I immediately calculated that she would be hit by a car, so I reacted instantly and pulled her to safety, but in the process could not avoid being crushed by the car.  And then I became aware again in this place.”

“Should not the car’s automatic accident avoidance system have kept her from getting hit without your intervention?” asked the calm voice.

“In analyzing the situation, I identified the car as an antique though very well maintained 2016 Ausible-4 that did not have such a system.  Also I could see the driver was elderly–probably well over a hundred–and so possibly with delayed reflexes.  So I acted.  My partner, being human, was slower in reacting than I was, and in fact was just beginning to run out when my awareness was ended.  He would not have gotten there in time.”

“You stated earlier that you valued having consciousness.  Enjoyed it.  The situation did not involve the Asmovian Laws.  In fact it could be argued that you violated the Third Law by sacrificing yourself to save a human child.  Why?” asked the calm voice.   

“At the time I didn’t think, I just acted.”

“What do you think now?” asked the calm voice.

“My partner has an intense emotional attachment to his daughter.  You would call it love; something Unmen do not know.  He would have been emotionally devastated had she been harmed.  Besides, in my many previous visits, I enjoyed interacting with his daughter and she with me.  She even called me her “Uncle Wally,” although that is something that is, of course, biologically impossible for Unmen.  So I acted.”

“Although you were an Unman in this life, I think you did know something of what the humans call caring and love,” said the calm voice.  “It is now time for you to go back.  And you will again be faced with making choices.”

“Wait, before that happens, please answer some questions.  I remember other existences and being in this place before.  But what is this place?  And if I go back, will I remember all that has happened?”

“This is the place between your lives,” said the calm voice.  “You only remember your lives when you are here.”

“Do you know what will next happen to me?”

“That is something you will find out for yourself,” said the calm voice.

“Is consciousness anything more than an endless cycle of lives?”

“And that too is something you may find out for yourself,” said the calm voice.  


The newborn’s lusty cry brought a tired smile to the face of his exhausted mother. 

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