Every so often, I have an idea for a writing prompt, and over the years they’ve finally built up to a critical mass deserving of a blog post. The following are a bunch of beginnings of short stories, which I may expand in the future if I like how the beginnings turned out. At the end of each, I’ll have some ideas for where the story could go next. Feel free to take one and run with it–I’d love to see what people come up with!
i. When Tiny Aliens Attack
I’ve always been sort of a loner. My mom had my little brother when I was ten, and after that it was like I didn’t exist to her. The rest of my family seemed to be similarly enchanted by the new baby, and I entirely dropped out of the picture. It was hard at first, but I don’t blame my brother. We’ve had some good times over the years. Since I left home ten years ago though, I haven’t heard from him much. I’ve gone my own way and my family, theirs.
These days, I live a mostly solitary existence, eating, sleeping, and working alone. When there’s nothing better to do, I go out and cruise around. I like to listen to the sounds of nature and other people when I’m cruising. Sometimes I think I spot another guy doing the same thing, and we acknowledge each other. It’s the closest thing to social contact I get nowadays.
Of course, everything changed when the little aliens attacked.
It was a beautiful morning in autumn, and I was out enjoying the sunshine when I heard a lady’s voice crying for help a ways off. I quickly turned and headed toward the source of the sound. I wouldn’t say I’m a hero type, but I’d been saved by the kindness of strangers in the past and since then I’ve been looking for a chance to pay it forward. But that’s a story for another time.
Anyway, as I got closer to the repeated calls for help I could make out multiple voices. Suddenly, they were augmented by desperate shrieking. I increased my speed, and that’s when I saw the aliens.
There were two very small alien vessels and one bigger one, but even the big one was just about the length of my body. The smaller ones were a third as long. All of them were made of some foreign material I didn’t recognize, and were longer than they were wide, and pointed on both ends. All were swarming with little aliens. I’m a big guy, and I guess I never really thought about what I expected an alien to be like, but I suppose I imagined they would be impressive. Not the little, skinny, crablike beings I was seeing now. It seemed like maybe the aliens couldn’t survive outside their ships, because none of them had attempted to disembark.
I could also see the source of the shrieking: a lady who had been hit with some kind of alien weapon! She was dragging one of the smaller craft along behind her, the weapon embedded in her side, and screaming continuously. The other small ship was following another lady, who was continuing to cry for help while fleeing, but not quickly enough–the small craft were very quick and maneuverable–and another weapon flew out from the alien ship and buried itself in her flesh as well. There was blood everywhere. This was crazy. I’d never seen anything remotely like it.
I turned my attention to the mothership. Unlike the small ships, it didn’t appear to have any weapons, and was currently not moving. Maybe if I damaged it, the smaller ships would be forced to return and would stop attacking. It also seemed safer and more assured than going after one of the dangerous, swift vessels. It was worth a try, at least. I was still a little ways off, and none of the aliens seemed to have noticed me yet.
I built up some speed and headed straight toward the mothership, intending to body slam it. The ship and I were pretty comparable in overall dimensions, but it looked probably hollow, and I thought a good whack could probably deal significant damage. The aliens appeared to spot me as I got closer, and started to move their mothership, but it was too slow.
CRACK! I slammed into the side of the ship, punching a sizeable hole in its flank. I saw stars. The impact was harder than I’d anticipated, and I was disoriented. I wasn’t sure where I’d ended up relative to the action. I braced for the pain of an alien weapon as I lay there, senseless. I think maybe I was crying out. I couldn’t tell.
After what felt like ages but could’ve been seconds, I recovered enough to see through the haze. The alien ship was badly damaged, but due to the unfamiliarity of the construction, I couldn’t tell if it was still functional. I’d better hit it again.
I moved out a little ways to give myself a bit of a runway, and then hurtled toward the mothership again, this time with even more speed than the last. My heart was pounding in my head. The aliens were swarming all over the deck in what appeared to be panic. I closed my eyes just before impact and–
CRACK! I’d aimed for the same spot as the first time, and the weakened hull splintered under my body weight. I didn’t even stop–my momentum carried me through the wreckage, and I slowed down gradually on the other side before turning to look back at what I’d wrought. The smaller alien craft had cut their quarries loose, thank goodness, and had returned to the mothership. All the aliens had been moving about in a frenzy before my second attack, but now they seemed stunned at the mess that had been their vessel. I felt a shiver of excitement. I’d taken down an alien mothership! Who knew such things were possible? I wondered if they’d be able to repair it, given I had no idea of their capabilities. But no, the aliens started moving items off of the mothership and into the smaller vessels. They must’ve concluded it was unsalvageable. They seemed to have lost track of me in the confusion.
I looked around for the people who’d been injured earlier–there was still a lot of blood all over. “Hello?” I called out. I was a little worried the aliens would hear me and come after me, but I was feeling pretty confident from my victory, and thought that even if they could hear or understand me, they’d probably be afraid I’d be able to destroy their other craft too.
“Hello. Thanks,” came a reply. It wasn’t one of the victims, but perhaps a friend or family member. She had a slight accent I couldn’t place. I turned to look at her and–wow. She was a real stunner, her wrinkly gray skin catching the light and casting sparkles in every direction. From the same direction, one of the wounded slowly approached, blood still billowing slowly from where she’d been hit. She nuzzled up next to the lady who’d thanked me and they touched fins. I took a look at the wound–the weapon was still embedded, with a long cord trailing behind it. It didn’t look too deep, but I couldn’t think of how to remove it without causing more damage.
“Not good,” I said. The uninjured one took a look as well and then looked back at me sadly.
“I’m K’kz’t’ka of the Greater South Pacific Clan,” she said. “Nice to meet you. Thank you.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m T’zat’zak’ki, of the North Pacific,” I replied. “Let’s get out of here.” I took one last gulp of air, fluked up, and dove. Hopefully the aliens couldn’t pursue us here. I could only imagine what they would do now that their mothership had been destroyed–would they be able to get back to wherever they’d come from, with only the smaller ships? Would they send reinforcements to exact revenge? Would they tell each other glorious tales of how a huge, powerful sperm whale destroyed their most powerful vessel? Somehow, I suspected that though this was the first I’d seen of such creatures, it wouldn’t be the last. Maybe I’d better stick together with these beautiful ladies, y’know, to protect them. Whatever happens, we’ll be ready.
Have you ever seen Freaky Friday? The movie in which a mother and daughter “swap bodies” for a day? Mild hilarity ensues as they try to figure out how to swap back.
This kind of story seems to be representative of the way most people think about the interaction between mind and body. It’s called dualism: the idea that one’s self is independent of the body it lives in. Under that assumption, it makes sense to talk about souls, and life after death, and works of fiction like Freaky Friday.
However, I can tell you firsthand that dualism is wrong. Not because I have a strong conviction about the nonexistence of the metaphysical–in fact, I believe in some form of magic for reasons that will soon become apparent–but because I’ve lived Freaky Friday, over and over, for longer than I can remember. And it’s nothing like the movie, believe me.
Let me explain with another parable: Theseus’s ship. This was a historically important ship to the ancient Greeks, and in attempting to preserve it for posterity, they gradually replaced all the timber as it wore out with new wood. Eventually every part of the old ship was replaced, leading some to question whether or not it was the same ship, and if not, at what point it had become something else. All biological organisms are like Theseus’s ship–even your skeleton is a living tissue whose cells are completely replaced within 10 or 15 years. The “you” of 15 years ago shares no components at all with your present self, but you still feel like the same person. This is why dualism is so appealing and intuitive–there’s this ineffable sense of continuity that appears to exist independent of the physical components that make up a body.
Though every human is their own Theseus’s ship, replacing their cells as they get worn out, what they become through this process is just the older version of themselves. But apparently it doesn’t have to be that way–here’s where my own story comes in.
Presumably at some point I was born, and was at that time a unique individual, just like everyone else. But at some point–I can’t remember when for reasons I’ll explain shortly–instead of slowly becoming the older version of myself, I slowly became someone else.
Here’s how it plays out. Somehow, in the normal course of living and interacting with people, I absorb other people’s genetic material. (Or their essence, or–something–honestly, I’m not confident in the mechanism, and since the process seems impossible based on what I know about biology and physics, perhaps I shouldn’t rule out straight-up magic.) Then, over the course of the 10 or 15 years it takes my body to replace all its cells, instead of replacing them with copies of my own cells, it somehow puts in the cells of one of the people whose genes I’d picked up, and years later, I’m a copy of them.
I’ve been men, women, and everything in between. I’ve been every race and combination of races on the planet. I’ve been disabled, paranoid, sociopathic, terminally ill. I’ve been a simpleton and a genius. And through it all, though there’s still an ineffable sense of continuity, I can tell that the thoughts I tend to think, the decisions I tend to make, and even the core values I hold at each step of the way depend heavily on the physical body I currently possess.
I don’t have direct control over the person I’ll become, but clearly I can exert some influence. I generally try to spend as much time as possible with people I wouldn’t mind being in the future, and avoid those I’d rather not become. It often works, but sometimes it doesn’t. While in my present state I have a strong moral compass, and am currently working on cultivating a consensual relationship with my intended next form, I’ve been people I’m not proud of, and have done some terrible things in order to increase my chances at a good next life.
As I’ve said, I don’t remember my childhood, or even anything beyond about two and a half centuries ago. The human brain seems to have limited long-term memory capacity, and the issue is exacerbated by the fact that all my information has to go through this chain: if one form has a particularly bad memory, no future forms can recover that lost information. At some point I started keeping a diary–in fact I’ve probably kept many diaries that have since been lost to the ages–but of course, the oldest original diary I currently own, which is from 1799, is in pretty bad shape. I have spent time copying over the content into new books, but before the digital age this took forever and had to be repeated every few decades. And, as time went on there was just more and more to copy, so certainly some things were lost. My records go back to the 1300s, but when I go back and read the oldest stuff, for all I remember it might as well have been someone else–ha, ha.
I’ve had some pretty good relationships and careers, but I have to keep moving every few years when it becomes visibly apparent that I’m looking more and more like someone I know. One time I turned into a particular famous actor after a single exposure to him, and spent that decade in a remote town in New Zealand trying to convince the locals I wasn’t him, but just a hapless lookalike.
I’m writing this during a period of clarity–I was lucky to pick up someone reasonably intelligent and natively rational and introspective. But I’m not always so clear-headed. Some of the worst parts are the periods of transition from an intelligent form to a less intelligent one (you can read a much more heartwrenching account of that phenomenon than I’m capable of producing in Flowers for Algernon). It’s really frustrating to always have things “on the tip of my brain” and to notice myself becoming overwhelmed and unable to focus. I think it’s potentially a more exquisite form of torture than just being a dumb person all the time, since, as I can tell you firsthand, people tend to overestimate their capabilities. However, unlike Charlie Gordon, I at least have my next life to look forward to during such periods of ineptitude.
Another interesting transition to observe is the moral slide from an upstanding person to an evil one. It’s much easier to notice it happening when I go back and read my diary than it is in real time, but honestly it feels kind of similar to the Legend of Murder-Gandhi. Upstanding-me tries to set boundaries to keep future evil-me in check, but partially-evil-me always comes up with ways to rationalize breaching them. Also, upstanding-me knows that it’s futile, so that’s pretty demotivating.
One perk about being an exact clone of an existing evil person is that those are the times I’m more likely to use their identity to steal their money, which could be thought of as a good thing. When I’m a clone of a good person, I tend not to do things like that. However, when I’m evil, I do other evil things unrelated to harming my evil template person, so I can’t claim it’s a net positive effect.
Sometimes, I mourn for my original identity. Even though I have the subjective experience of continuing to live, it’s kind of like my original identity, whoever it was, is dead, since the information contained in his or her brain and genome has been lost. However, it doesn’t bother me too much–clearly I’m unique in other ways, and the sense of continuity of self is psychologically strong.
“Your breakfast is ready, sir,” said Uriel. The dumbwaiter opened, revealing a plate of cheesy scrambled eggs, beans, tomatoes, and spinach, along with a piping hot mug of coffee. Exactly what I’d been hoping for. Uriel always knew when I was in the mood for one thing or another without my having to tell him. In the beginning, I’d make him take it back and prepare something else out of spite, but that quickly got old. The first meal was always the best anyway.
I wolfed down breakfast and then laid back down in bed and closed my eyes. What day was it today? Thursday? How many days has it been since–
Uriel helpfully displayed a calendar on the bulkhead. “It is Friday, August 15, sir,” he said cheerfully. “It has been 184 days since we left Earth.”
“And will today be the day you tell me how Earth is doing in our absence?” I asked, sipping my coffee. It really didn’t matter what day it was, since I had a routine, but it was sort of nice to at least pretend we were making progress, that this journey would eventually end.
“No, sir, not at this time. It would be bad for your mental health.”
I sighed, not that I was expecting a different answer. From what I could see out the windows of our little spaceship, it seemed like Uriel’s end goal was to stay in orbit around the sun, following behind Earth. At least, the sun looked a similar size in the sky as it did from Earth, and thankfully it didn’t seem to be shrinking. From here, Earth appeared as a big blue star that was always in the same place relative to the ship, after accounting for our constant spinning.
I finished my coffee and replaced the empty dishware in the dumbwaiter, where it quickly rose out of sight to be washed. I stood up and pulled on my overalls, and then my socks and boots, just as I’d done every day back on Earth. I admit, my life aboard this weird little spaceship was not that qualitatively different than it had been at home. Just the scenery had changed, the food was better (and I didn’t have to make it or clean up), and the sense of nihilism was stronger.
I went out of my bedroom and into the pasture, a large field hosting a diverse assortment of wild grasses. It was lit by an incongruous-looking glass chandelier that moved on a linear rail across the ceiling and modulated its brightness to create a rather convincing day-night cycle. I entered a small area fenced off by chicken wire, and began the work of moving the chickens. First I collected all the eggs and put them in a basket outside of the fence. The birds were surprisingly easy to herd back into their mobile hutch today. That done, I rolled up the fence and threw it on top of the hutch before dragging the whole thing into a new patch of grass and erecting the fence again. Last night I’d moved the cows out of this area, so now it was the chickens’ turn to pick maggots out of the manure and fertilize the grazed area to promote regrowth. Yes, there are innumerable maggots, eight chickens, and two cows on board my spaceship. All the cows and chickens are female; sometimes Uriel artificially inseminates one of them, though I’ve never seen him do it. I’m sure if I were any other type of abductee, Uriel could figure out how to do all this labor himself, or maybe he’d have set up the ship to produce lab-grown meat and cheese out of interplanetary dust and cut out all the middlemen. As it was though, the daily movement of the animals and the feeling of being “outside” with the “sun” on my back was the only thing keeping me from slipping into existential despair. I was sure that was by design.
After moving the chickens, I milked the cows, returned to the bedroom to put the animal products in the dumbwaiter so Uriel could process them, and then came back “outside”. The pasture was by far the most pleasant place I had available to me at the moment. I took my sketchbook out of my pocket and started yet another portrait of one of the chickens.
So, to invoke a rather clichéd movie trope, how did I end up here?
To be honest, I didn’t know all the details. But essentially, mankind was getting to be in a heap of trouble toward the middle of the 21st century, in terms of worsening natural disasters, widespread food shortage, deadly pandemics popping up every few years, and interminable wars over dwindling resources. At some point, someone quietly invented an artificial general intelligence, and had tried really hard to get its goals to be aligned to those of humanity, hoping that this entity would be able to coordinate a reversal of fortune and solve all the ongoing crises. And they were actually pretty close to achieving this goal alignment, as far as I can tell. At least, they succeeded in not creating a paperclip maximizer or some other world-destroying problem. However, instead of having the superintelligence want what’s best for humanity, it somehow ended up wanting what’s best for one specific human. Namely, me.
And apparently, the numerous problems of Earth were already beyond Uriel’s ability to solve with high enough confidence and speed, so he decided the safest way to guarantee me a long and happy life was to design and build a bespoke spaceship, kidnap me, and keep me in solar orbit until I die.
A couple obvious questions spring to mind. First and foremost, why me? Do I fit some kind of built-in description of an average human? Was the person who invented Uriel a friend or relative of mine? Did they pick my name out of a hat while attempting to take their creation for a test drive, and then the test drive got out of hand? Or maybe it had something to do with my being a self-sustaining recluse who was probably significantly happier and healthier than the average starving, dying, war-torn human at the time. These are all questions I’ve posed to Uriel, but sadly, the answer would not be good for my mental health. Second, it sure is lucky that I’m the most antisocial person I’ve ever met. If Uriel had picked a different victim, one with a large extended family and social network, would he have had to kidnap a hundred people? If part of the victim’s wishes included all their friends and family being as happy as possible as well, that would involve kidnapping exponentially more people, which might be more difficult than just solving all of humanity’s problems. Was my extreme antisociality part of the reason I was chosen?
Also, I do want to return to Earth someday, and I do want humanity to survive and prosper. I hope that means Uriel is working on solving those problems and plans to return me to Earth once he deems it safe. But if he can’t fix it at all, or if he thinks keeping me in the dark indefinitely will make me happier than being returned to an imperfect Earth, or if he has a better understanding of my psychology than I do and I don’t really want to go back even though I truly think I do…then I’d better get used to the view.
iv. Highlights from Research Presented at This Year’s Annual Meeting of the Fellowship of Pre-Avian Paleontology
A mysterious 6-million-year-old fossil has been discovered of a previously-unknown group of winged mammals, which possessed a wing structure formed by membranes stretched between superelongated digits, completely unlike any other known group of gliding animals. The authors consider it possible but unlikely that such a creature was capable of powered flight, based on multiple observations: its lack of a keel, its low mammalian metabolism, and its lack of skeletal pneumatization. It is more likely that it was a specialized glider, climbing trees using its foot and thumb claws and then gliding from one tree to another in its jungle habitat. Our preliminary morphological study places these animals, dubbed “avimammals,” as the sister clade to primates, given its similarities to modern flying lemurs. Topics for follow-up research include a biomechanical study to refine our understanding of its aerobatic abilities, a dentition study, a proteomic study, and others. The fossil record never fails to turn up the most bizarre ancient creatures.
New molecular data suggest that the enigmatic extinct bird group known as parrots are not as closely related to us as previously thought. This research recovers the parrot family as being the sister clade to Passeriformes, rather than within Passeriformes, indicating that higher intelligence and symbolic language evolved independently in both groups. This has interesting implications as to how our ancestors interacted with parrots when they coexisted. How did the difference in brain structure influence development and learning? Was it truly competition with ancient corvids that drove parrots to extinction, or were they more specialized and therefore more vulnerable to climate change?
An extinction previously hidden in the fossil record comes to light with the discovery of abundant black shales approximately 385 million years of age, coinciding approximately with the theoretic emergence of tetrapods. Perhaps this extinction wiped out land arthropod groups that previously would’ve competed with early tetrapods, and allowed the latter to colonize the land to fill the newly emptied niches. If further research finds this extinction is large enough to be on the same level as the Big Five mass extinctions, it may prompt the renaming of the Fifth Mass Extinction (10 Ma) to the Sixth, and the Big Five to the Big Six. We expect the public to resist this name change.
There has been some progress decoding human digital image formats. The lack of ultraviolet in all such decoded images is most likely a property of the original images, given what we know about primate trichromatic vision, but it’s possible that it is an artifact of our decoding method. Many of the decoded images depict scenes of human family groups posing in unnatural-looking formations inside their abodes and baring their teeth at the image-capturing device, often in front of a conifer, which are not usually found within human abodes. Our working hypothesis is that bringing a large conifer into one’s abode is a feat not all family groups can accomplish, so they bare their teeth in a display of dominance and document their superiority as a family unit. We have many more images from additional storage devices that have yet to be decoded, so when we publish we may have a better hypothesis to explain this confusing behavior.